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Medicaid Expansion Backers Battle Senate On New Law

The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Saying the Legislature “moved the goal posts,” backers of a proposed constitutional amendment that would expand Medicaid coverage argue a new law should not block a key review of the initiative by the Florida Supreme Court.

Barry Richard, an attorney for the political committee Florida Decides Healthcare, filed a brief last week disputing a contention by the state Senate that the controversial new law should scuttle the Medicaid proposal.

The law increased a petition-signature requirement for supporters of proposed constitutional amendments to trigger Florida Supreme Court reviews of the initiatives.

Florida Decides Healthcare submitted enough signatures to qualify for Supreme Court review under an old version of the law, but the Senate contends that the new law now applies. As a result, the Senate argues justices should not consider the Medicaid initiative, which could go on the 2022 ballot.

But Richard wrote in the brief that the wording of the new law “fails to support the notion that the Legislature intended such retroactive application.”

“(A section of the law) states that it applies to constitutional amendments proposed by initiative ‘for the 2020 general election and each election thereafter.’ However, nothing in the statute indicates that (the section) is applicable to measures that had already been certified by the Secretary of State to have met the threshold for review (by the Supreme Court) before passage of the law, which is what would make the law retroactive,” the brief said.

The Senate, however, said in a filing that the new law’s increased signature requirements apply to the Medicaid proposal. The law (SB 1794) drew heavy debate during the legislative session that ended in March and is part of long-running attempts by many Republican lawmakers and groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce to make it harder to pass ballot initiatives.

“(The Medicaid) initiative has not received the threshold number of signatures to reach the purview of the (Supreme) Court and the court should dismiss this matter for lack of jurisdiction,” the Senate filing said.

The Supreme Court plays a critical role in deciding whether ballot initiatives go before voters. It reviews the wording of proposed initiatives and determines whether they meet legal standards, such as not being misleading and not lumping together multiple subjects.

If Florida Decides Healthcare gets Supreme Court approval, it could then focus on trying to collect hundreds of thousands of additional petition signatures to put the issue before voters in 2022. In last week’s brief, Richard briefly described the critical role of the court review.

“The burden of collecting over 700,000 signatures across the state in order to qualify for ballot placement is daunting and expensive. An early advisory opinion from this (Supreme) Court indicating that an amendment meets constitutional and statutory requirements is a great benefit to a sponsor in its efforts to raise the funds and otherwise garner public support necessary to achieve ballot position,” the brief said. “Conversely, an opinion indicating that an amendment is not valid avoids the risk to the sponsor of spending large sums of money to pass an amendment only to have it declared invalid after passage, and enables the sponsor to correct the defects if it desires to try again.”

Based on a formula tied to turnout in the 2016 presidential election, backers of  ballot initiatives proposed for the 2020 ballot had to submit 76,632 statewide signatures to trigger Supreme Court review and also had to meet varying signature requirements in a quarter of the state’s congressional districts.

The new law increased the required number of statewide signatures and mandated that requirements be met in half of the congressional districts, up from a quarter. The new statewide threshold for 2020 initiatives went from 76,632 signatures to 191,550 under the new law, according to the Senate court filing.

Florida Decides Healthcare initially proposed its amendment for the 2020 ballot and collected enough signatures, 90,420, to spur Supreme Court review. Faced with the difficult task of collecting 766,200 overall signatures to get on the 2020 ballot, the committee decided to instead target 2022 --- though it continued to seek Supreme Court review based on meeting the 2020 signature threshold.

The committee proposed its initiative after lawmakers refused repeatedly in recent years to expand Medicaid to low-income adults who currently don’t qualify for coverage. Such an expansion is allowed under the federal Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, with Washington picking up most of the cost for newly covered people.