Oregon House Democrats who are working to expand health care coverage to more than 150,000 people say they are on track to approve higher provider taxes on hospitals to help pay for it.

By Brad Cain

The Associated Press

SALEM, Ore. — Oregon House Democrats who are working to expand health care coverage to more than 150,000 people say they are on track to approve higher provider taxes on hospitals to help pay for it.

"We're going to have it to the governor by the end of April," said state Rep. Mitch Greenlick, who is chairman of the House Health Care Committee.

The Portland lawmaker made the comment Friday as he and others on the panel offered an update on their efforts this session to move the state another step toward universal coverage.

There are intensive negotiations going on around the proposed provider tax on hospitals and insurers, which would raise about $700 million in the next two years to expand state-supported care to 80,000 children and as many as 75,000 low-income adults.

The minority Republicans say the tax, and the Democrats' plan to create an Oregon Health Authority to guide an overhaul of the state's health care industry, should be placed on a statewide ballot.

"Oregon voters should decide whether raising taxes and creating more bureaucracy are the right solutions for our health care system," said Rep. Ron Maurer, R-Grants Pass, who is a member of the health care panel.

Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli also said lawmakers need to be prudent in view of the state's worsening revenue picture.

"Insuring more Oregonians is a worthwhile goal, but adding $700 million in new spending before the state fixes its $3 billion budget hole seems unwise," he said.

But Democrats have made it clear they are ready to use their "supermajority" in the Legislature to enact a provider tax outright, since expanding health coverage has been at the top of their "road map" of top issues since last year.

On a related note, Greenlick said Democrats still plan to push a 60-cents-a-pack cigarette tax to raise money for tobacco prevention and public health programs.

The strategy is to first deal with several other revenue-raising proposals, such a proposed gas tax for transportation improvements and an increase in the corporate minimum tax, before dealing with a cigarette tax.

"It's off in the train yard, being perfected before it's put on the main track line," Greenlick said of the cigarette tax.

House Speaker Dave Hunt has said he hopes the House will clear tax measures by the end of April.