What kind of workload will the Oregon Legislature be facing during its 2018 session, scheduled to start in just about three months?
Voters will answer part of that question during a Jan. 23 special election on whether to partially overturn health care taxes approved earlier this year by the Legislature. You may be trying to put this out of your mind right now — after all, the Christmas shopping season begins today — but you'll have to make a decision soon enough on this issue, Measure 101.
The taxes on health insurance and hospital services are part of a $550 million plan to plug a budget shortfall that at one point was estimated at $1.6 billion. This particular influx of money is meant to balance the state's Medicaid budget (known here as the Oregon Health Plan) and to stabilize the individual insurance market.
Portions of the tax plan were challenged by Republican legislators, who gathered enough signatures to refer the issue to voters. Two of those legislators say their intent is to fund the Oregon Health Plan through other tax sources and budget cuts in other areas, including public employee health insurance.
We'll have more to say about Measure 101 in the weeks to come. In the meantime, you should know that a "yes" vote is a vote to preserve the tax plan; a "no" vote is a vote to reject it. If voters do reject the tax plan, the Legislature in February will be facing the task of filling a substantial hole in the state budget: The Legislative Fiscal Office has estimated that if voters reject the plan, the state will bring in $210 million less than anticipated in the current two-year budget.
That gap would become the No. 1 agenda item for the 2018 short session, which starts Feb. 5 and is scheduled to end March 9.
The chance that voters will reject the tax plan is one good reason why legislators should keep the workload as light as possible during the 2018 session.
Here are additional reasons why legislators would be wise to do that:
• Gov. Kate Brown recently appointed two longtime state senators, Richard Devlin of Lake Oswego and Ted Ferrioli of John Day, to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, the organization that develops and maintains a regional power plan and related efforts to manage fish and wildlife. The appointments mean those two veterans will not be around during the February session. Devlin is one of the Legislature's top budget writers. Ferrioli has been the leader of Senate Republicans for more than a decade.
• The House of Representatives is losing members as well, with Ann Lininger of Lake Oswego, Mark Johnson of Hood River and John Huffman of The Dalles all moving onto other positions. All told, it adds up to a considerable loss of institutional memory.
• These short sessions the Legislature holds in even-numbered years never were intended for heavy lifting. When Oregon voters approved annual sessions, the idea was that major policy decisions would be reserved for legislative sessions held in odd-numbered years; these longer sessions offer more of an opportunity for big ideas to get proper vetting and public input. The shorter sessions were meant to tweak budgets as necessary and to tie up loose ends.
Even so, major issues have been pushed through during short sessions on contentious subjects such as energy policy and the minimum wage. There is talk that the 2018 session could be faced with a bill to cap greenhouse gas emissions and charge some of the state's largest companies for their carbon output.
Regardless of the merits of the carbon proposal, it's too complex for a short session, especially the 2018 session. It's time for our short sessions to get back to basics. (mm)