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Smoke and fire

cigarettesThere was a moment, early in the debate yesterday on the children’s insurance fund/cigarette tax legislation (House Bill 2201), of startling eloquence harkening back to a famous speech of old. It came when Representative Ron Maurer, R-Grants Pass, warned that “we should not place our children’s health on the altar of a nicotine addiction.” It echoed the brilliant 1896 speech of Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

Bryan, of course, lost that election, and the Oregon Republicans who stood (and walked) with Maurer on the health/cigarette bill are likely to lose, in the larger picture, as well. Bryan’s wilver issue eventually fell apart; the Oregon Republicans’ stance on the bill could do them some damage as well.

The bill essentially does two things. It creates a program and fund aimed at greatly expanding health insurance coverage for now-uninsured children in the state; the bill has been haggled over for months and has been significantly amended through that time, but not enough to draw substantial Republican support. Its backing has been almost entirely Democratic (and it is a primary project of Democratic Governor Ted Kulongowski). Because it involves an increase on cigarette taxes (raising the level roughly to that in neighboring Washington), it needs a 60% favorable vote in the Oregon House. To get it, five Republican votes are needed, and that’s more than it could get.

The House floor debate Thursday on the bill has been described as “the most wild day ever seen on the House floor,” which (after reviewing the couple of hours of activity there on the bill) is exaggeration.

The unusual activity consisted mostly of a series of procedural challenges to House Speaker Jeff Merkley (who remained tangled up in them for some time; you could only imagine how the more experienced Washington Speaker Frank Chopp would have sliced through the knots with a swift axe). The other element was the walkout, at one point, of just about all of the House members, leaving the chamber, for a few minutes, without a quorum. They included former Speaker Karen Minnis, R-Wood Village, who must have forgotten her words from June 2004, when Democrats failed to show up for a special session she had sought: “I can respect a worthy adversary if they choose to disagree with my position and vote against me. I cannot however, respect those who use their absence from the body to which they have been elected as a strategy to obstruct a vote which could result in the passage of something with which they disagree. It is a cynical rationalization, a dereliction of duty and an insult to the voters of this great state.”

But the fact that all this occurred at all is striking, since logically it should not have. These sort of activities, the guerilla warfare of legislating, is ordinarily a last resort when hopelessly losing, or else when a majority is almost violently beating down on the minority. Neither was true in this case. The issue at hand was on the floor for an ordinary vote, and the debate was proceeding in ordinary fashion; until the Republican technical questions (which did not relate to any ability to debate or vote properly) the floor status was normal. More striking was this: The Republicans essentially were guaranteed to win the vote, which in the end they did.

We can only suppose here that they did what they did because it was the winning that constituted the problem.

We’re struck here by the debate of Republican Representative Scott Bruun, R-West Linn, who said that he would like to see state help for insuring children for health care, and would favor an increase in the cigarette tax, but diapproved of linking them. Possibly the best argument against the bill related to just this, as Maurer alluded: That the cigarette tax probably is, long-range, a diminishing revenue source, and taxes a limited number of Oregonians for a broad-based program. (There were substantial counters to these arguments, too.) When he asked advocates for cigarette tax funding why they were determined to stick to that source rather than some other for funding, he said, the reply was that the cigarette tax increase “polls well.”

He probably did hear that, and we’d guess the polling is correct: This bill probably would be popular among the voters statewide. Bruun went on: “It’s always difficult to balance constituent sentiment and constituent passion, if you’re not convinced the policy is right. It’s something we all grapple with all the time. . . . I need to help shape public sentiment … I owe my constituents more than just pushing the popular button. I owe them my best judgement.”

Fair enough; he sounded serious and sincere on the point. But as a matter of politics, looking over a chamber split into caucuses of 31 and 29 members, this bill had to make Republican leadership exceedingly nervous.

In rejecting the bill (it failed overall 32-24), the House Republicans left themselves in a difficult spot. A replacement bill could reach the legislature later, but right now the likelier scenario seems to be a ballot measure – on an issue that (we are told) has already been polled and tested, and has emerged with good numbers. In opposing it, as they would have to, the Republicans can and will argue that they opposed a tax increase. But you can imagine the TV ads on the other side, pitting cigarette manufacturers against the health of little children – the images even more than the text automatically suggest themselves. Oregon’s smoking population is estimated at 18.5% (slightly slightly higher than Washington and Idaho, which are nearly identical); a clear majority will likely vote in favor.

That’s not where Republican candidates in swing districts will want to be, from a political standpoint at least. You could hear it in Bruun’s debate. You may have picked it up as well when Representative John Lin, R-Gresham, took maybe the single most unusual action of the day when he said as the vote was being tallied, “Mr. Speaker, I am not going to vote on this issue.” (Later, he said, “I am going to vote, but not right now.” He did not say when; and he was declared in violation of House rules.) Lim’s district, like Bruun’s, is politically marginal.

So why the uproar over procedure and walkouts? The best answer seems to be: To obscure the cigarette tax/children’s health argument. But that only worked for a day, on the House floor. A statewide campaign may be a different matter, and it may not do much good for Republican efforts to regain the House.

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