Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski made a personal pitch to lawmakers on Monday to pass legislation that would provide health care for 117,000 uninsured children through an 84-cent increase in the state’s cigarette tax. “In all but a few exceptional cases, these children are not neglected.
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski made a personal pitch to lawmakers on Monday to pass legislation that would provide health care for 117,000 uninsured children through an 84-cent increase in the state’s cigarette tax.
“In all but a few exceptional cases, these children are not neglected. They are children of working families whose parents are struggling to make ends meet,” Kulongoski said before a joint meeting of the Senate Health Policy and Public Affairs committee and the House Health Care committee.
The legislators also heard from the parents of Charles Hollywood II, a fifth-grader suffering from chronic fluid in his ears. Specialists have recommended surgery, but the boy’s current health care plan will not pay for the operation.
Hollywood has already lost nearly all the hearing in his right ear.
“We don’t want to see our son in pain any longer, and we worry that he will fall behind in school due to a hearing loss that could be treated right now,” his father told the committee.
The bill represents a critical moment for Kulongoski and the Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate. Creating a comprehensive health care package for Oregon’s children was a major plank in the governor’s re-election campaign, but to garner three-fifths of the vote needed to pass the bill will require bipartisan support in the Oregon House, where Democrats hold a slim 31-29 majority.
And in a session when the Legislature is flush with cash, it may be a tough sell to some Republicans. Kulongoski’s proposal is estimated to cost $108 million for the 2007-2009 budget and $200 million between 2009 and 2011.
“We all agree that we have to get something on the table; we want to get the kids covered,” said Rep. Scott Bruun. But the Republican from West Linn said it is unfair to target smokers when the whole state stands to benefit.
“Why are we asking this beleaguered, now almost despised minority to pick up the share of this?” Bruun said.
Most smokers would probably agree.
If Kulongoski’s measure passes, Oregon smokers will be taxed more than $2 per pack, and the state would tie neighboring Washington for the third-highest prices in the country.
“They need to try and find their money somewhere else,” said Dennis Flack of Salem, holding an unlit cigarette at a mini-mart near the Oregon Capitol. “I thought the lottery was supposed to pay for the children’s stuff.”
But advocates say the bill would help bridge the gap for middle class families who earn too much money to qualify for federal benefits but have a hard time paying increasing health care costs. Kulongoski’s plan would use a sliding scale and reduce health premiums for families of four earning between $40,000 and $70,000.
But Republican lawmakers said the plan would be costly and that the cigarette tax might not generate enough revenue to offer long-term sustainability.
House Minority leader Wayne Scott, R-Canby, said the governor’s health care program could result in a $70 million shortfall in the 2009-2011 budget. He also questioned if the bill should target middle-class families.
“If you are upper middle class or upper class, making upwards of $80,000 a year, should the government be providing you health care coverage for your children?” Scott said.
In late 2004, nearly one in eight Oregon children lacked health insurance. According to advocacy groups, more than 90 percent of the uninsured children in the state live in a family with one or more working adults.