Democrats get aggressive on approving bills in final days of session

Article subtitle: 
Health care measures to cover abortions and young unauthorized immigrants pass on partisan votes
Article author: 
Saul Hubbard
Article publisher: 
The Register Guard
Article date: 
Friday, June 30, 2017
Article category: 
Oregon Issues
Article Body: 

SALEM — After a session of restraint, Ore­gon’s Democratic lawmakers are flexing the power of their big majorities in Salem as the final bell approaches.

For months, Democrats have held back many controversial policy bills, as they pursued needed Republican votes on three major tax increases. Doing so, they hoped, would avoid antagonizing GOP leaders and swing votes.

But with a major new tax on health care providers already passed, a package of transportation taxes and fees moving forward, and a new corporate tax dead, Democrats are being more aggressive.

This week, they advanced a bill requiring Ore­gon insurers to cover abortions, among other reproductive health services, for women without charging them any out-of-pocket expense.

And they moved to extend government-funded health insurance to many unauthorized immigrants under age 19.

Those hot-button social policies are big priorities for key Democrat constituencies, but most Republican lawmakers oppose them.

Some Democrats also want to change the election rules for any bill passed this session that’s successfully referred to voters. The idea drew angry accusations of “electioneering” and “turnout suppression” from Republicans this week.

Immigrants’ health care

In the final days of the session, Democrats expect to pass a bill that would enroll an estimated 15,000 young unauthorized immigrants into the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s version of Medicaid.

Thanks to $550 million in recently approved taxes on hospitals and health insurance companies, lawmakers have identified the projected $36 million needed to pay for that health insurance coverage for the next two years.

The minors, but not their parents, would become eligible for medical and dental services starting in 2018.

Unlike for the rest of the Medicaid population, where the federal government picks up most of the tab, the state will have to pay the full bill for the young immigrants.

But supporters say Senate Bill 558 is a humane and sensible idea.

“This means that children in our state will no longer suffer from preventable illness or death,” Linda Roman of the Ore­gon Latino Health Coalition told lawmakers this week.

Women’s health bill

Democrats are forging ahead with a women’s health bill that is controversial mostly because of its provisions on abortions.

House Bill 3391 would require Oregon insurers to provide a wide array of reproductive health care services, including abortions, to women for free.

Those services also include birth control, prenatal and postpartum care, screenings for sexually transmitted diseases, cervical and breast cancer, breastfeeding support and supplies, and counseling for domestic violence victims and tobacco cessation.

In an attempt at compromise, the latest version of HB 3391 would exempt religious employers from having to provide health plans with abortion coverage. Instead, it would set aside $500,000 in new state funds to provide abortions for their workers through the Oregon Health Authority.

Sen. James Manning, a Eugene Democrat, said Thursday he supports the bill.

“Why are we bickering about women’s reproductive health care, but not about men’s health care?” he said.

But Republican lawmakers objected to the new state funding for abortions, which they said could pay for around 300 procedures.

“It is difficult to be accused of being discriminatory for expressing a pro-life view,” House Republican Leader Mike McLane of Powell Butte said. “Many of us believe that a human life is ended with an abortion.”

SB 558 and HB 3391 were voted through to the floor of the Senate and the House, respectively, on Thursday evening.

Both votes fell largely along party lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed.

Voter referral rule rewrite

The proposal to temporarily rewrite the rules for voter referrals, meanwhile, caused a partisan firestorm in the Capitol this week.

Under the bill, lawmakers — not the Oregon attorney general — would get to draft the initial ballot title and explanatory statement for any bill passed in the 2017 session that is successfully referred to voters.

Majority Democrats would get four of the six seats on the committee drafting the ballot materials. The committee’s final product could be appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court.

While the details of ballot drafting can seem arcane, the wording that voters see can have a significant impact on a measure’s chances of success.

The bill also would set a special election date in January 2018 for any referrals, as opposed to November’s general election.

Democrats say their target is an embryonic campaign aimed at referring to voters the $550 million in new taxes on health care “providers.”

If that campaign gathers enough signatures, under current law, the taxes would have to be suspended until the question goes voters in November 2018.

That would jeopardize health insurance for more than one million Ore­gonians on Medicaid, said Rep. Dan Rayfield, a Corvallis Democrat, because the state is relying on the new taxes to fund those services for the next two years.

A vote in January 2018, on the other hand, would allow lawmakers to fill the Medicaid budget hole during the 2018 short session in February should voters reject the taxes, he argued.

“Leaving the whole process up to chance would be a failure on our part,” Rayfield said.

But Republicans were incensed by the move.

Rep. Julie Parrish, a West Linn Republican who expects to work on the campaign to strike down the provider tax, called it a “travesty for voters.”

Turnout in a January special election is guaranteed to be low, she said, and bypassing the November election “is akin to voter suppression.”

“We have a referendum process that creates a check on our power,” she wrote in an email. “We should not steal that process from voters to strengthen the power of politicians and special interests.”

Republican Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, meanwhile, decried the proposal as “political shenanigans.”

The proposed ballot writing process “subverts the nonpartisan process for drafting a ballot title by injecting partisan politics and political bias,” he said.

But Rayfield said the accusations of partisanship around the ballot drafting were unfounded.

“Opponents often feel that going through the Attorney General is political too,” he said. “A bipartisan committee gives us a better chance for finding consensus” on ballot language.

The House Rules Committee could approve the referral changes as soon as Friday.

To place the Medicaid tax before voters, Parrish will need to gather more than 58,000 signatures within a 90-day window.

Follow Saul on Twitter @SaulAHubbard . Email .