This story originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle and is republished here under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. Read more stories at oregoncapitalchronicle.com.
In November, Oregonians will vote on four measures affecting health care, criminal sentencing, gun safety and the ability of state lawmakers to stall legislation.
Two of the ballot measures would change the state’s Constitution, adding an amendment to make access to affordable health care a fundamental right and eliminating slavery and indentured servitude as acceptable punishments for crime. Another measure would punish state legislators for walking out on the job to prevent the passage of laws.
The fourth measure faces the most opposition: It would limit gun ammunition sales and would require a firearms safety course, permit and background check prior to any gun sale in the state.
Melissa Buis Michaux, a professor of politics at Willamette University in Salem, said she expects all of the measures to pass if Democratic voter turnout is high.
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“The tight governor’s race will motivate people to get out and vote,” she said, “but it’s not a presidential year so turnout tends to be a bit lower than normal. If any measure fails, it will have better luck in two years.”
All the measures have support from three political action committees: Oregon Votes Yes, Benton County Democratic Central Committee and 2022 Our Oregon Voter Guide.
Other PACs are supporting individual measures. The only measure that’s generated opposition fundraising is Measure 114 which would tighten Oregon’s gun regulations.
Oregon law states that measures take effect 30 days after being approved by voters unless state agencies have to write regulations governing them as Oregon State Police would have to do if Measure 114 passed. In that case, it would take effect about three months after the vote.
Measure 111 would amend the Oregon Constitution to make affordable health care a right by adding: “It is the obligation of the state to ensure that every resident of Oregon has access to cost-effective, clinically appropriate and affordable health care as a fundamental right.”
The measure, initially proposed in a joint resolution by two Portland Democrats, state Rep. Rob Nosse and state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, was passed on a party-line vote in the Legislature in 2021 and referred to the ballot.
Nosse said Oregon would be the first state to guarantee the right to health care in its Constitution if the measure passes.
The potential impact of the measure on health care coverage in Oregon is unclear. About half of Oregon residents have insurance through their employer, and about one-third are insured through the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s version of free Medicaid coverage. Only about 150,000 have individual policies through the federal marketplace, and less than 1 million are covered by Medicare, which insures people 65 and over and those with disabilities. Currently, about 6% of Oregonians are uninsured.
The measure acknowledges it could add costs to the state budget but leaves budgeting decisions up to the Legislature, saying it “must be balanced against the public interest in funding public schools and other essential public services,” which are not defined, and cannot come at the expense of those services.
The Legislature would need to pass laws to protect the right to health care, and it would be up to the courts to interpret how they were applied.
“Having a right to something isn’t the same as automatically having money or resources to access that right,” said Buis Michaux, who teaches health care policy. As an example, she cited the Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability.
“The Americans with Disabilities Act really established the right for differently abled people to be able to bring suits, which changed access to all kinds of services and spaces,” Buis Michaux.
Critics warn that the measure would bring a raft of expensive lawsuits that the state would have to fight using taxpayer dollars.
Former Rep. Julie Parrish, now a law student at Willamette University, said in a piece published by the American Bar Association that the suits could come from a wide range of people, including those who have insurance but consider themselves underinsured since the measure does not say whether having insurance coverage meets the amendment’s requirement of “access to” health coverage.
“More concerning is that the measure is silent in defining words like ‘cost-effective’ and ‘clinically appropriate,’ and though the Legislature can come back and define those terms statutorily to give them meaning, the Legislature will not meet again in a timely manner to put definitions to all of the measure’s undefined terms before a passed constitutional amendment would go into effect 30 days after the election,” she wrote.
Supporters of the measure, such as Steiner Hayward, say Oregon is a national leader in health care and this is a next logical step in protecting health care access. Adding health care as a constitutional right would protect it through political leadership changes and make legislators take into consideration the requirement while making policy decisions, Steiner Hayward said.
The Right to Health Care PAC raised $77,000 in support of the measure and spent $52,000. It has no formal opposition, but many Republicans voted against the joint resolution, citing concerns about the potential cost of enforcement.
This measure would remove language in the state Constitution allowing slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. It also would add language to allow an Oregon court or a probation or parole agency to assign criminal sentences other than incarceration, such as education programs, counseling, treatment or community service.
Buis Michaux said Oregon is one of several states that still have slavery exceptions in its Constitution.
“In some ways this is really about not allowing slavery to continue to exist in any form, and not allowing that status to be bestowed on anyone for any reason,” she said.
She said it’s part of a nationwide movement to overhaul the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude but allows them to be used as a punishment for crime.
Voters in Nebraska, Utah and Colorado recently passed similar measures removing these exceptions from their constitutions.
“If Utah can do it, Oregon can do it,” Buis Michaux said.
Oregonians Against Slavery and Involuntary Servitude, a group comprised of Buis Michaux’s former students at Willamette University and incarcerated individuals, brought the measure to state legislators.
“When they graduated they actually started to work on getting it passed,” she said.
State Sens. James Manning Jr., D-Eugene; Lew Frederick, D-Portland; and Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego sponsored the group’s bill. The Legislature passed it as Joint Resolution 10 with broad bipartisan support and referred it to the ballot.
There is no formal opposition to the measure though the Oregon Sheriff’s Association contends it would mean that inmates could no longer reduce their sentences through voluntary jobs, including working in a commissary or cleaning up public parks.
“The way this measure is written, any involvement in a jail program by an (incarcerated individual) without an order from a court, probation officer or parole officer would likely be seen as involuntary servitude,” the group wrote in a statement in the 2022 Voters Pamphlet.
A political action committee called Oregonians United to End Slavery raised nearly $133,000 in support of the measure and spent $90,000.
This measure would penalize state legislators who miss 10 or more floor sessions during a term, barring them from running for office the following term. The measure aims to stop a minority party from preventing bills to be passed: Unlike most other states, Oregon requires that two-thirds of state lawmakers are present for legislative business to occur.
Over the last three years, state Republicans have walked out several times in protest or to stall or derail votes, including cap-and-trade proposals that limit greenhouse gas emissions for fossil fuels producers. Democrats, who have controlled the Legislature for many years, last walked out in 2001 over a Republican redistricting plan.
“If you close your eyes to the year and the party, and you just looked at the quotes the Democrats were giving at that time, and frankly, the quotes that Republicans were giving to the media at that time, they’re just the inverse of what they are today,” said John Horvick, an analyst at DHM Research, a Portland-based research company.
Measure 113’s chief petitioners were Andrea Kennedy-Smith, vice president of the union Service Employees International Union, SEIU, local chapter 503, and Reed Scott-Schwalbach, president of the Oregon Education Association.
More than 155,000 people signed a petition to refer the initiative to the ballot.
Supporters say unexcused legislative absences have prevented politicians from addressing key issues in Oregon, such as bills on homelessness, prescription drug costs and climate change.
Horvick said the impact of this measure, if it passes, is unclear since the circumstances that led up to it are “historically out of the ordinary.”
Democrats currently control state government, holding the governor’s office and a supermajority in both legislative chambers.
When government is more divided, walkouts are much less likely to occur, he said.
There is no formal opposition to the measure. The Vote Yes on 113 group has raised $86,000 and spent $77,000.
Measure 114 would tighten Oregon’s gun laws and get rid of a loophole in federal law that allows firearm dealers to sell guns without a background check if it’s not completed within three business days. It would require everyone who buys a gun in Oregon to pass firearm safety training, and it would ban the sale of bullet magazines that hold over 10 rounds.
People who already own or inherit large-capacity magazines could use them on their property, at shooting ranges or while hunting.
More than 131,000 people signed the petition putting the measure on the ballot.
Supporters of Measure 114, including the gun-control advocacy groups Oregon Alliance for Gun Safety and Lift Every Voice Oregon, say it wouldn’t end mass shootings, but they say requiring background checks would help keep guns out of the wrong hands. They also say the required training would promote gun safety and that banning the sale of large magazines could prevent massive slaughter by forcing a shooter to reload and provide an opportunity for people to run.
Opponents, including the Oregon Hunters Association and the Stop 114 Committee, say the measure overreaches and would put those in high crime areas at risk. They also say the measure would cost local governments too much to process permits.
“Law enforcement in Oregon is woefully underfunded and understaffed. It can barely respond to anything but the most violent crimes. How can we expect it to gear up overnight to conduct classes, live-fire training, background checks, fingerprinting and issue permits? It won’t happen,” said Paul Donheffner, legislative committee chairman for the Oregon Hunters Association.
Jason Myers, executive director of the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association, pointed to a ruling in a California case where the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a similar ban on magazines holding more than 10 rounds.
The Oregonian/OregonLive commissioned a poll from DHM Research that found 51% of likely Oregon voters would vote for Measure 114, 39% would vote no and 10% don’t know how they’ll vote.
Horvick said the measure is leaning toward passing because there is strong support among those who are voting for it.
The measure is the only one to draw fundraising by opponents.
This story was developed in collaboration with the Catalyst Journalism Project at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Catalyst brings together investigative reporting and solutions journalism to spark action and response to Oregon’s most perplexing issues. To learn more visit this webpage or follow the project on Twitter @UO_catalyst.