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Talks over transportation, health care melting down in Salem

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown delivers her inaugural speech in the Capitol House chambers in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 9, 2017. Brown was sworn in to complete the remaining two years of former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber's term. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — After hours of heated debate Saturday among lawmakers in Salem, negotiations over a long-term transportation package appeared to be melting down as a January special election-showdown over a $670 million health care tax began to take shape.

Sixteen House Democrats sent a letter to Speaker Tina Kotek signaling the transportation package may be in jeopardy if they don't agree to raise new tax revenue before the 2017 session ends July 10 as required by the state's constitution.

"In the final days of the 2017 session, we believe that the Legislature must re-focus on the all-important task of identifying additional revenue to support education and other essential state services, ensure government transparency and reduce waste so we can protect critical services," the House Democrats wrote. "Transportation is a high priority ... But the package alone is not enough."

House Democrats also moved forward with their plans to set a special election on Jan. 23, rather than November, for a potential ballot fight being launched by two Republican lawmakers over newly-approved taxes on hospitals and insurers' health care premiums. The tax is designed to fund Medicaid health plans for more than 350,000 low-income residents over the next two years and fill a large portion of the state's budget shortfall in the 2017-19 cycle that began Saturday.

Republican Rep. Julie Parrish said this past week she plans to delay the new taxes under House Bill 2391, approved by the Legislature a week ago, from going into effect this year until voters decide their fate at the ballot in the next general election. The bill is otherwise on track to be implemented within 90 days or so of Gov. Kate Brown's signing, which must happen by early next week.

On Saturday, Republican Rep. Cedric Hayden tentatively pledged to join Parrish's effort. In a letter, the dentist from Roseburg, who often treats Medicaid patients, said he'll co-sign the referendum effort with Parrish if Brown doesn't veto HB 2391 and if his own alternative proposal, which never got a hearing, is not considered.

"This approach would resolve Medicaid stability concerns, make health care more affordable to ratepayers, retain voters right to a reasonable check and balance of legislation while keeping me from joining the referendum petition on HB 2391 if signed into law," Hayden wrote.

In Oregon, voters can delay a new law's implementation until the next November general election, or some other date set by the Legislature, and let voters decide its fate if they can gather enough signatures.

If Parrish gathers more than 58,000 valid signatures before it goes into effect, HB 2391 would be placed on hold and potentially so would health care for thousands of low-income and disabled residents.

Democrats say a Jan. 23 special election — established through an amended version of Senate Bill 229 — would allow them to more quickly react if voters struck it down because the 2018 legislative session would begin a week or so later. Republicans blasted it as an attempt to suppress voter turnout and influence the outcome.

During a committee hearing, Democratic Rep. Dan Rayfield questioned Parrish's motives, noting her paychecks last year for running Republican Dennis Richardson's successful campaign for Secretary of State.

"The real question that I want to ask you, are you coming here today as a consultant or are you here as a legislator and do you intend to profit off of this referendum?" Rayfield asked Parrish during her testimony.

Parrish scoffed and produced records indicating the five Democrats on the committee have accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from key supporters of the health care bill, including Rep. Rob Nosse, who also works for the Oregon Nurses Association.

"Has Rep. Nosse ever voted 'no' against anything the Nurses Association wanted?" Parrish said. "Seriously Rep. Rayfield, your question is out of line."

The January-election proposal now heads to Ways and Means, the state's budget-writing committee, for further consideration.

"House Democrats passing a bill to strip Oregonians' referendum rights and engage in voter suppression to hijack the next election wasn't enough drama for a Saturday session," said Jonathan Lockwood, spokesman for the Senate Republican caucus. "Now, they are blasting out a letter saying they'll blow up a bipartisan transportation package that took years to craft. This is an unbelievable move."

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