Rep. Julie Parrish had a good idea in April, when she proposed shifting state employees' health care into coordinated care organizations, potentially saving the state up to $1 billion. Now, she's pushing a bad idea: filing a referendum to overturn a tax on hospitals and insurance plans that will maintain Medicaid coverage for 350,000 Oregonians and help balance the state budget.
The provider tax, approved by majority Democrats with only four Republican votes, would increase the existing tax on hospitals and add a tax on some insurance premiums, raising $670 million. The tax was supported by the hospital industry, and it will leverage $1.9 billion in federal funding that the state otherwise would not get.
Parrish, along with other Republican lawmakers, objects to the provider tax, arguing that the costs will be passed on to customers, although the hospitals stand to get their increased tax payments back in the form of payments for treating Oregon Health Plan patients.
The wisdom of a Band-Aid tax plan to keep the Medicaid program afloat can be debated, and it would have been preferable to see lawmakers enact serious cost-containment measures and restructure the corporate tax structure to balance the budget as they initially intended. Parrish's proposed changes to state employee health coverage could have played a prominent role in that effort, and it's unfortunate that the majority Democrats paid it scant attention.
But launching a petition drive to overturn the provider tax, potentially throwing the health coverage of hundreds of thousands of Oregonians into limbo for a year, is irresponsible. If Parrish gathered enough signatures to qualify the referendum for the ballot, the provider tax would be put on hold until the November 2018 election.
Yes, Oregon law provides for citizen initiative and referendum powers, allowing the voters to overturn legislation they disagree with and to enact measures the Legislature can't or won't pass. But Parrish's campaign isn't a spontaneous uprising of popular will; it's retaliation by a lawmaker and a political action committee for legislation that didn't go her way.
Democrats responded to Parrish's threat by pushing an amendment that would exercise the Legislature's power to call a special election, in this case for late January, which would allow the 2018 Legislature to take action if voters repealed the tax.
Republicans denounced that move, calling it an attempt to manipulate the result by holding what will likely be a low-turnout election directly after the holiday season.
They have a point. But so do the Democrats. The future of health care, including Medicaid, is uncertain enough given the battle playing out in Congress over attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Oregon at least can try to provide some stability for as long as possible. Retaliatory measures such as Parrish's referendum are not helpful.