Groups challenge tax-hike petition

Health-care activists are criticizing “out-of-state petitioners” who are trying to repeal the Legislature’s tax hike, saying that 60,000 low-income Oregonians could lose health insurance if the tax is overturned.

Further, they said, repeal would end nutrition, transportation and home-care services for many elderly and disabled people while chopping funding for community mental health crisis services.

“The health of Oregonians and the stability of our economy are in jeopardy,” said Elizabeth Byers of the Oregon Health Action Campaign.

Byers and others conducted a news conference to urge Oregonians not to sign petitions being circulated by Citizens for a Sound Economy.

Their mention of the “out-of-state” interests waging the anti-tax campaign refers to the fact that Citizens for a Sound Economy is based in Washington, D.C., and has hired a California company to gather signatures.

Sponsors of the antitax drive have expressed confidence they will gather the 50,000 signatures they need by the Nov. 25 deadline to force a Feb. 3 special election on the tax issue.

The Legislature’s tax package, which includes a temporary income-tax surcharge, would raise about $800 million to balance the current two-year budget without having to cut education or social programs.

The tax measure itself does not specify cuts, but a separate budget measure passed by lawmakers would do that if the higher taxes are rejected by voters.

Health-care activists said that would translate to more than $200 million being slashed from the Oregon Health Plan, which provides health coverage for thousands of the “working poor.”

That would mean kicking as many as 60,000 people off the Health Plan — mostly single adults in low-paying jobs who do not qualify for traditional Medicaid coverage.

One of those people is Vern Smith, a 49-year-old Portland resident who suffers from diabetes and other illnesses.

Smith told reporters that he needs 15 prescription drugs to manage his condition.

“Without the Oregon Health Plan, I won’t be able to afford the medications I need to live. I don’t know what I will do,” Smith said.

The leader of the tax referendum drive, Russ Walker of Citizens for a Sound Economy, said supporters of the tax are using “scare tactics” to try to persuade Oregonians to uphold the tax.

Walker predicted that if voters reject the tax hike on Feb. 3, lawmakers will find other ways to balance the budget without making major cuts in schools and other key programs.

“I think they will elect to preserve funding for the Oregon Health Plan,” Walker said.