Parrish reflects on turbulent 2017 session
This story has been updated from its original version.
When House Rep. Julie Parrish (R–West Linn) returned from Salem at the close of the 2017 legislative session, it was with decidedly mixed feelings.
There were accomplishments, to be sure, but in the end Parrish felt that legislators let the public down.
"It was probably one of the strangest sessions I've experienced yet," said Parrish, who has represented House District 37 since 2010. "We walked in with more money than we've ever had, and yet somehow we couldn't fund the things voters wanted to fund. We wound up with a transportation package that I think really harms our community — I voted against that — (and) we didn't do some of the cost savings measures I think we really need to do to get the state squared away financially.
"It was a session of anomalies and really big overreach."
An unhealthy approach
Parrish made headlines during the session as one of the most outspoken opponents of a healthcare provider tax that was expected to generate more than $600 million over two years to help pay for Oregon's expanded Medicaid program.
The proposed tax includes a 4 percent assessment on rural hospitals and a 1.5 percent tax on insurers.
Democrats hope to hold a special election in January 2018 to determine the fate of the provider tax. Parrish takes issue with both the logistics of the tax as well as the decision to hold a special election, which she and Secretary of State Dennis Richardson say will suppress voter turnout.
As such, Parrish is currently gathering signatures for a petition to place the tax on the November 2018 general election ballot. For that to happen, she and other petitioners must gather around 59,000 signatures within 90 days of the end of the Legislature.
"To shore up Medicaid, we just decided we're going to tax people's health care," Parrish said. "And our biggest objection with the health care taxes is that really large corporations and unions were carved out of the bill — they don't have to pay any of this. Because they're self-insured, we won't be taxing them."
Parrish said the tax would result in a $25 million hit in the general fund for K-12 schools in Oregon, and that she fears Medicaid providers might shut their doors in the face of increased taxes.
She worked with other legislators on an alternative plan that included a "nominal" cigarette tax as well as a new tax on vaping. That plan, Parrish said, was deprived of hearings and an opportunity to be scored by the Legislative Fiscal Office.
"We didn't say we were opposed to taxes, we said you shouldn't tax people's healthcare to pay for it," Parrish said.
A heavy toll
Parrish was also disappointed by the $5.3 billion transportation bill that passed the Legislature and was sent to Gov. Kate Brown's desk in early July. She said her district, which includes West Linn and Tualatin, would carry a particularly heavy burden under a new tolling system for certain lanes of Interstate 5 and Interstate 205. The tolling area would start at the Tualatin junction of the two highways.
"What the Legislature is proposing is an entire sort of closed loop of tolling, that you don't get to go on the freeway system in the Portland metro area unless you pay a toll," Parrish said.
New payroll taxes included in the bill were also a concern, as Parrish said they would fund services like buses or rail that aren't available in communities that would nonetheless pay the tax.
"You're going to pay the payroll tax, whether you ride the bus or not, whether you live in a transit district or not," she said. "I find that that is disproportionately unfair to low income earners."
The bright side
The news wasn't all bad. Parrish said an accomplishment that stood out for her was the creation of a new Willamette Falls Locks Commission.
The commission will have 23 members and will advocate on behalf of repairing the locks as well as taking them out of federal control.
"It's a permanent government commission, it's modeled sort of like the (Columbia River) Gorge Commission is," Parrish said. "It's the first step in sending a signal to the federal government that we're serious about taking the locks back over and managing them properly, so that we can get them put back on."
Parrish was also pleased with a $1 million allocation made to nonprofit vision screening organizations, which has long been a priority locally with the West Linn Lions Club.
"So (organizations) will go out and screen a couple hundred thousand kids in the next two years," Parrish said. "We know that when we have good preventative healthcare and you catch things like childhood eye disease, you save the health system a ton of money in the long run."
Questions of motive
In the midst of the healthcare tax debate, Parrish felt personally attacked and would go on to lodge a former complaint after facing pointed questions from Rep. Dan Rayfield (D-Corvallis) about her motives during a House Committee on Rules meeting.
As first reported by the Associated Press, Rayfield asked Parrish about political consulting work she did with Lindsay Berschauer, who recently founded the Oregonians Against More Healthcare Taxes Political Action Committee (PAC). He also referenced Parrish's work on Richardson's 2016 secretary of state campaign.
"One of the committee members decided to use that opportunity to personally attack me for having worked on Dennis Richardson's secretary of state campaign and imply that by referring out a ballot measure, that that would be a profit endeavor for me," Parrish said. "What I should have responded was, 'I hate this bill so much, I'm willing to do it for free.'"
She said that she will, in fact, be providing many services "in kind" or free of charge when it comes to the healthcare petition, asking for reimbursement only on expenses like paying for stamps. Parrish added that her consulting firm, Pip Communications, does not have any clients in the healthcare industry.
Pip Communications is primarily a data communications firm specializing in server and website management, according to Parrish. The political consulting side of the business started when Parrish was doing work for one of her own campaigns.
"I just decided I needed better tools for my own campaign — how do you map your neighborhood so you can go knock on doors, stuff like that," she said. "We still try to work with regular private businesses, but I have people asking to help do stuff with their campaigns — 'Can you edit a fundraising letter or create a mailer?' 'OK, I can help you with that.' A lot of that is 'in kind' or reimbursed for expenses we incur on their behalf."
Pip continues to consult for Richardson; on July 3, Citizens to Elect Dennis Richardson paid $1,000 to Pip for "media management."
Oregonians Against More Healthcare Taxes, meanwhile, has paid about $1,336 to Parrish in unspecified reimbursement fees since it was founded in June. It has not made any payments to Pip Communications.
Editor's note: The orginal version of this story incorrectly stated where Parrish estimated a $25 mllion impact from the tax would be felt.