Legislators weren’t shy about using the word “tax” earlier this year as they grappled with how to fund Oregon’s Medicaid program. In committee hearings and written testimony, lawmakers, lobbyists and state officials all freely referred to some of the new funding provisions as taxes. That makes sense, considering that’s exactly what they are.
But as a referendum petition challenging some of those provisions gains steam, the word “tax” disappeared from people’s vocabularies. Most notably, a legislative committee tasked with writing a ballot title and explanatory statement for the referendum managed to devote some 700 words to the controversial provisions without using the word “tax” once. Instead, the drafts use the word “assessment,” a term vague and bureaucratic enough to seem entirely unremarkable.
That’s a mistake that the drafting committee should rectify – assuming, at least, that the goal is to clearly convey and explain to Oregonians what they may be voting on. While the Legislature’s lawyer argues that “assessment” matches the wording of the bill, plain language is always better for communicating with voters who don’t generally speak in such legislative jargon as “be it enacted.” Considering many people rely on a ballot measure’s title and statement to inform their vote, an objective, understandable and honest summary is critical.
Unfortunately, the drafts provide another data point to suggest objectivity isn’t the goal here. As we noted last week, there are plenty of irregularities in how this law and referendum effort are being handled by the Democratic majority. That legislators are writing the ballot title at all is unusual, considering the Oregon Department of Justice typically handles that task. But a bill passed on a party-line vote gave that power for this one election to the Legislature. That bill also changed the timing of the election to January and gave Democrats four of the six seats on the ballot-title writing committee. House Speaker Tina Kotek then further stacked the deck by choosing which representatives serve on the committee without even consulting House Minority Leader Mike McLane, as House rules call for. Of the six legislators on the committee tasked with writing an objective ballot title and explanation? Five of them voted for the Medicaid funding package.
Certainly, the need to fund the state’s share of Medicaid costs should be a top priority for Oregonians, whether they recognize it or not. Ensuring that the state’s poorest have basic health care serves not only social goals but financial ones as well. Preventative care means that health problems are treated sooner and result in fewer people seeking emergency care, by which point a problem has metastasized in complexity and cost.
The critics of the funding package agree with that goal. Their problem is how the Legislature chose to fund it. While some provisions made sense, others – including a 1.5 percent tax on health care premiums for customers who buy from the exchange – raises basic questions of fairness. While some customers will see their rates stabilized as a result, others will bear a heavier burden, including small businesses, nonprofits and even thousands of college students who buy insurance through their schools. The tax will also be levied on plans purchased by K-12 districts for their employees.
Is this the right way to do it? That’s the debate we should be having. Unfortunately, the proponents of the funding package can’t even stomach calling a tax a tax. If they believe the funding plan, inequities and all, is the best way to keep Medicaid going, they should make that case to the public. Disguising the truth never works as long as people hope it will.
– The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board