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Right to Health Care Oregon (copy)

State Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, standing, debates Tuesday on the House floor at the Capitol in Salem.

A proposal to ask voters to decide if the right to health care should be part of Oregon's Constitution seems unlikely to survive this year's legislative session. 

Supporters of the proposal, House Joint Resolution 203, do not think they have the votes to pry the measure out of a Senate committee in the final days of this short legislative session. 

We were surprised — pleasantly so — to hear the news. (The Oregonian first reported the story.) After the measure passed the House of Representatives, about two weeks ago, we wrote an editorial in which we predicted that the Senate almost certainly would approve it as well, sending the matter to voters to decide in the November election.

Here's a case in which we are pleased to say that we were wrong.

We were worried about the possible financial impact to the state should voters enshrine the right to universal health care in the constitution. And it appears that similar worries on the part of senators played a big role in cooling the resolution's momentum.

It wasn't just conservatives or Republicans expressing worries about that point: The Oregon League of Women Voters weighed in as well. In a letter to the House committee that was considering the measure, the league noted that it supports access to health care at the federal level — but warned that it could be a costly mistake for Oregon to take on the burden alone.

"The state of Oregon has insufficient income to support its current responsibilities and cannot provide the added cost of health care coverage for all its residents at this time," the letter read in part.

Lawyers for the Legislature responded by saying that the constitutional amendment would only require the state to provide access to "cost-effective, medically appropriate and affordable" health care, not that the state would have to actually provide that health care. But that distinction apparently failed to do much to soothe the concerns of senators.

Oregon is great at hatching these kinds of universal goals, these grand aspirations. But we're not always so great at working out the details. 

Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, the driving force behind the proposal, noted that this is the third time the measure has stalled in the Senate. We have little doubt it will be back before the 2019 session, and maybe with a little bit of additional thought about how it might affect the state's always-tenuous finances. (In fact, considering how the Legislature works, there's always the possibility that it could lurch back into life this session — but that prospect seems remote.)

But this unexpected legislative development serves as a reminder of how difficult it can be to get bills through the Legislature. 

And that's not a bad thing. 

It should be immensely difficult to get a proposal through the Legislature. And, conversely, it should be easy to kill bills. In fact, one of the most important functions the Legislature serves (and one that is generally undervalued) is to kill bills.

There's a reason why we ask legislative proposals to run through such a gantlet of committees and hearings before even one chamber gets to vote on a measure. (And why we ask the proposal to follow the same process in the other chamber.) Here's the reason: Most of the ideas submitted to the Legislature don't deserve to become law.

The entire legislative process is meant to identify fatal weaknesses in proposals that don't measure up and to strengthen other proposals to the point where they can pass muster.

If this puts you in mind of "I'm Just a Bill," that great song from "Schoolhouse Rock," it should. That song ends with Bill being signed into law. It's a happy ending, but remember how the song starts: with Bill, seemingly abandoned on the steps of the Capitol. You get the sense Bill has been there a few times before. (mm)


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