This year the Oregon Legislature advanced a lot of big ideas. One of the most ambitious was the Healthy Kids Program, extending health coverage to 117,000 uncovered Oregonians who are under 18.
The revenue from a strong state economy is supporting bigger budgets for education and other public services. But the Healthy Kids Program will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. We needed to find new revenue to add this program.
The source we found is an increase of 84½ cents per pack on cigarettes. This increase will make Oregon's cigarette tax the same as Washington's and higher than most states.
Critics of the cigarette tax increase argue that the cost of the Healthy Kids Program should be paid by everyone, not just the minority who smoke. Considering the huge costs smoking imposes on our health care system, I don't find this argument persuasive.
Tobacco costs Oregon more than $1 billion in medical expenditures annually. It costs another $1 billion in lost productivity due to premature death and disability.
The other main argument against the Health Kids Program relates to the way it came out of the Legislature. Instead of enacting the cigarette tax, the Legislature referred it for a vote of the people in November 2007 by an amendment to the Oregon Constitution.
No one in the Legislature believes that cigarette taxes should be enacted by constitutional amendment. As our fundamental document, the Constitution should include only the most important aspects of state government operation and the rights of its citizens.
But moving the Healthy Kids Program forward requires a constitutional amendment this year because of an interpretation of an amendment passed a decade ago. In 1996 Oregonians amended the Constitution to require a 3/5ths vote of legislators to pass 'bills for raising revenue.'
The Legislature's legal office issued an opinion that the 3/5ths vote requirement applies even in cases where the increase is referred for a vote of the people - unless the increase is established by amending the constitution rather than by statute. I disagree with that legal opinion.
The 3/5ths vote requirement was obviously intended to make it harder for the Legislature to increase taxes on its own. It makes no sense to apply it to any measure referred to the people. It makes even less sense to distinguish between statutory and constitutional amendments.
We tried to enact the Healthy Kids Program by a statutory referral to the people, but the count in the House fell one vote short of 3/5ths. The bill was declared failed based on the legal advice, despite a challenge mounted by several of us House members who believe the majority vote was enough to pass it.
The program was later brought back as a constitutional amendment and passed the House by a simple majority vote. As a result, the ballot this November will present voters with an amendment to the Constitution to raise the cigarette tax and to use the new revenue to pay for the Healthy Kids Program.
Adding to our Constitution a provision that should be in statute is undesirable. But it has happened before.
Because amendments are relatively easy to pass, the Oregon Constitution is too long and contains many provisions that shouldn't be there. Oregonians should pass the amendment for the Healthy Kids Program this year and be prepared to move it to statute at some future point.
Rep. Greg Macpherson, Lake Oswego, represents Oregon House District 38.