Oregon’s big health care fight is over, and not much has changed.
After millions spent on advertising, months of bitter debates, and a whole lot of terrible health care jargon, voters on Tuesday approved Measure 101. In doing so, Oregonians solidified a set of temporary taxes passed by the state legislature last summer and geared toward providing health coverage to thousands of low-income citizens.
The outcome of the measure appeared certain from the very first results Tuesday evening. Shortly after polls closed at 8 pm, the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office reported “yes” votes were leading with 63.5 percent of the vote. The Oregonian called the race in favor of the Yes on 101 campaign minutes later.
“While Washington DC falls apart, Oregonians are coming together,” Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement shortly after initial results emerged. “This vote sends a clear message that they are sick and tired of partisan efforts to reduce health care access. You should be able to see the doctor when you’re sick and have health care you can afford.”
Tuesday’s vote sets to rest a debate lawmakers had thought they’d settled during last year’s legislative session: How to pay for an expansion of Oregon’s Medicaid system—approved in the wake of the Affordable Care Act—now that the federal government has stopped footing the entire bill.
As they struggled to close a budget hole of more than $1 billion last year, legislative leaders found consensus around one strategy. With support from large hospitals and other health providers who’d be affected, the legislature passed two small taxes expected to raise between $210 million and $320 million a year—enough to cover hundreds of thousands of people at risk of losing their health care.
A small cabal of Republicans led by state Rep. Julie Parrish hated the deal, and so set about collecting enough signatures to put the matter before voters. In appearances all around the state, Parrish and state Rep. Cedric Hayden pressed their view that the taxes amounted to a “sales tax” on health care that would disproportionately fall on teachers and college students, among others. They also suggested the taxes were a ploy by greedy corporations, and that no one was actually in jeopardy of losing health coverage in the first place.
But Parrish and Hayden faced long odds. Bolstered by massive contributions from the state’s health care industry and labor unions, Measure 101 supporters raised and spent more than $3 million over the course of the campaign.
In contrast, the political action committee set up by opponents had raised a little more than $100,000 as of January 19, state records suggest. (Lack of funds for a media blitz might be one reason why Parrish and another Measure 101 opponent, Lindsay Berschauer, spent money to plant their arguments in a section of the state voters’ pamphlet meant for supportive statements.)
The money dumped into the single-issue special election wasn’t enough to inspire much voter interest. As of 7:30 pm Tuesday evening, less than 38 percent of eligible voters had turned in their ballots, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. The Oregonian noted that early turnout had trailed three statewide special elections held since 2000. The paper reported that the record low turnout in statewide special elections took place in November 1999, when 38 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot.
The success of Measure 101 almost certainly means more changes ahead for Oregonians than new health care taxes. Now that the state legislature doesn’t have to grapple with a huge budget hole in the legislative session that begins next month, lawmakers are freed up to consider other policies. The most ambitious is a plan to create a carbon-pricing system aimed at slashing greenhouse gas emissions in the state, but officials will also take up affordable housing, autonomous vehicles, tenant protections, and more.
Tuesday evening, though, all that felt far off. At a victory party at Southeast Portland’s Holocene, supporters of Measure 101 were jubliant at the outcome. And with the results still trickling in by the minute, one celebrant seemed to capture the general tenor of the room when she yelled over the crowd: “Julie Parrish lost her own fucking district.”
News reporter Doug Brown contributed to this story.