In the end, backers of a cigarette tax increase for children's health couldn't assuage voters' worries about monkeying with the state constitution &
an issue stoked by a record-shattering $12 million TV blitz financed by the tobacco industry.
The result was a shellacking of Measure 50 &
voters trounced it by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin in Tuesday's special election &
and a stinging setback for backers of the effort to extend health care to 100,000 uninsured Oregonians.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a leading backer of the plan, said he still thinks most Oregonians support an expansion of children's health care but were heavily influenced by the advertising.
"What happened was, the tobacco industry bought the election," Kulongoski said in an interview Tuesday night with The Associated Press.
The tobacco industry's ad campaign focused on what it called the ill-advised move of enshrining the tobacco tax in Oregon's constitution, while other ads questioned whether all of the money would go to provide health care for children.
House Democrats reluctantly placed the cigarette tax on the ballot as a constitutional amendment because of House Republicans' refusal to provide the votes needed to pass the tax outright or place it before voters as a statute.
A spokesman for the tobacco-funded opposition campaign, J.L. Wilson, took exception to Kulongoski's characterization of the industry "buying" the election.
"He's basically saying the voters were too stupid to see past the ads," Wilson said. "Voters were saying that they didn't want to pick on a convenient minority &
to pay for such a program or to put the tax in the constitution."
Despite the alarmist tone of the tobacco industry's TV ads, it is not unprecedented to put something like a cigarette tax in the state constitution. In fact, Oregonians have amended the state constitution 240 times in the past 100 years.
Some of the amendments adopted by Oregon voters have dealt with fundamental policy issues such as whether the state should have capital punishment.
But amendments also have been added to the constitution that deal with more minor or technical issues, such as authorizing state bond sales to finance small-scale energy projects or setting job qualifications for county surveyors or coroners.
Still, political analyst Jim Moore said the tobacco industry used its considerable financial resources to put the focus of the campaign on that issue &
which went largely unanswered by the pro-Measure 50 campaign.
"I saw lots of kids in their ads, but they never really responded to the constitutional issue at all," said Moore, who teaches political science at Pacific University in Forest Grove.
Despite the drubbing Measure 50 received, Kulongoski declared that "this fight isn't over," and said he and legislative leaders would be looking at other ways to get more children covered.
"The important thing is, I do not believe this is what Oregonians think about health care for children. This vote was only a response to the $12 million campaign" by cigarette makers.
Under the proposal, the state tax on a pack of cigarettes would have risen by 84.5 cents a pack to $2.02 per pack. That would have been one of the highest rates in the nation, behind only those of Rhode Island and New Jersey.
The tax increase would have raised about $150 million in its first year and a half, state budget officials estimated, which would have been enough to eventually insure about 100,000 children who have no current coverage.
Health insurers, hospitals and groups such as the American Cancer Society kicked in substantial donations to the pro-Measure 50 campaign to run ads focusing on the state's uninsured children, along with their families, with stories of debt and heartbreak.
House Speaker Jeff Merkley said he and other Democrats aren't going to give up on expanding children's health care. But he said the Legislature's February 2008 session might be too soon to talk about it &
especially since it will still be the same cast of Republicans serving in the chamber.
But after the November 2008 election, Democrats hope to hold an even bigger majority in the House and won't have to resort to putting the next children's health plan on the ballot as a constitutional amendment, Merkley said.
"It will probably be back on the table in the January 2009 session" of the Legislature, the Portland Democrat said.
Cigarette tax rejected despite TV campaign