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Time grows short for court decision

By Jim Saunders
8/26/2010 © Health News Florida

The Florida Supreme Court continues to ponder whether the November ballot will include an attack on federal health reform -- and add a highly partisan issue to an already nasty campaign season.

Justices released their regular weekly batch of opinions this morning but did not rule on a proposed health-care constitutional amendment. Time is running short: Elections supervisors will start printing ballots after primary-election results are formally certified Sept. 2, a week from today. 

At issue is "Amendment 9,'' which Republican lawmakers proposed to try to exempt Floridians from a key part of the new health-reform law. A circuit-court judge last month rejected the proposed constitutional amendment, saying the wording was misleading.

If the Supreme Court goes along with the state's arguments and places the measure on the ballot, it would bolster Republican efforts to make the controversial law a high-profile issue in the November elections.

Amendment 9 critic Rich Templin, a spokesman for the Florida AFL-CIO, described the proposal as a "political stunt" designed to fuel a debate "before anyone has an opportunity to to see how well the federal health-care reform package works.'' 

Groups that support the amendment are already gearing up to launch a "Yes on 9" campaign this fall. Allen Douglas, legislative affairs director for the National Federation of Independent Business in Florida, said members of his group are "adamantly opposed" to the health-reform law and want to fight back.

"That's been our charge from our members --- to do anything and everything you can,'' said Douglas, whose group represents small-business owners.

Amendment 9, which lawmakers approved this spring for the ballot, says Floridians cannot be forced by law to "participate in any health-care system.'' It is aimed at allowing people to opt out of a new federal requirement that they eventually buy health insurance or face financial penalties.

Four voters filed a lawsuit to challenge the ballot wording, and Leon County Circuit Judge Judge James O. Shelfer agreed with their arguments last month. He said lawmakers included "manifestly misleading" wording in a ballot summary that voters would see when they go to the polls.

The disputed summary says the amendment would "ensure access to health-care services without waiting lists, protect the doctor-patient relationship (and) guard against mandates that don't work.'' Shelfer said those broad claims are not backed up in the actual text of the amendment.

During Supreme Court arguments, an attorney for the state did not defend the disputed wording. But he asked justices simply to eliminate the summary and put the full text of the amendment on the ballot --- similar to a move the Supreme Court made in 2004 on a constitutional amendment dealing with parental notification of abortion.

But an attorney for the four voters said the Supreme Court would be overstepping its authority if it eliminated wording that had been approved by the Legislature.

Amendment 9 is part of a multi-pronged effort by Republican leaders to use the health-reform law this fall to rally GOP supporters and attack Democratic candidates.

A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed that 56 percent of Florida voters disapprove of the health-reform law, while only 35 percent approve. Polls released in June and July showed similar numbers. President Obama signed the law in March, after it was approved by the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Quinnipiac did not ask voters specifically about Amendment 9. If the measure goes on the ballot, it would need the support of 60 percent of voters to pass. That is the legal standard for changing the state constitution, as opposed to the simple majority of voters who decide most elections. 

Even if Amendment 9 ultimately passes, critics say, it will not exempt Floridians from the law's "individual mandate," which will require insurance coverage starting in 2014. They say the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution bars Florida from opting out of the federal law.

Templin, of the AFL-CIO, questioned the poll results because he said some people voicing disapproval of the health-reform law might not think Congress went far enough in overhauling the health system, in contrast to Republican critics who contend the law is a government takeover.

But Templin acknowledged that Amendment 9 and other arguments against the health-reform law will appeal to some voters.

"I think it will resonate with people who have yet to actually look at what is included in the health-care reform package,'' he said.

Peter Brown, assistant director of Quinnipiac's Polling Institute, said voters "still don't like the health-care overhaul.'' But Brown said it remains unclear how much of an issue it will become in campaigns such as the gubernatorial race between Republican Rick Scott, Democrat Alex Sink and independent Bud Chiles.

Republicans appear almost certain to use the issue to attack incumbent Democratic Reps. Allen Boyd, Alan Grayson and Suzanne Kosmas, all of whom voted for the health-care overhaul and are running in competitive districts.

As an example, Kosmas is being challenged in an east-central Florida district by Republican state Rep. Sandy Adams, who helped sponsor the legislation that became Amendment 9.

"I think Sandy Adams is definitely going to use that (health reform law) as an issue, because what they want to do with these (Democratic) people is put them in the boat with Obama,'' Douglas said.

--Capital Bureau Chief Jim Saunders can be reached at 850-228-0963 or by e-mail at jim.saunders@healthnewsflorida.org.