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State Says New Senate Law Scuttles Medicaid Initiative

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, right, addresses a joint session of the Florida Legislature, Tuesday, January 14, 2020.

TALLAHASSEE --- Just days after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a controversial law making it harder to pass ballot initiatives, the Florida Senate is using the law to try to block a proposed constitutional amendment that would expand Medicaid coverage.

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Senate attorneys filed a six-page document Saturday at the Florida Supreme Court, arguing that part of the new law dealing with required petition signatures should scuttle the proposed Medicaid amendment, which could go on the 2022 ballot.

The Senate and House have contended since November that the Supreme Court should reject the Medicaid proposal, which is backed by the political committee Florida Decides Healthcare. But the Senate argued in Saturday’s filing that the new law, signed Wednesday by DeSantis, bolsters its case.

The Supreme Court serves as something of a gatekeeper 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

The Senate’s new filing focuses on required numbers of petition signatures needed before the Supreme Court will review initiatives.

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 the Supreme Court review and also 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 filing.

Florida Decides Healthcare initially proposed its amendment for the 2020 ballot and collected enough signatures, 90,420, to spur Supreme Court review. Though it decided to move back the proposal to the 2022 ballot, it continued to seek Supreme Court review based on meeting the 2020 signature threshold.

The Senate, however, contends that the new law’s increased signature requirements apply to the Medicaid proposal and, as a result, the Supreme Court should not review the initiative.

“(The) 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 filing said.

In a footnote, the Senate said the same arguments could apply to two other proposed initiatives before the court --- a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana and a proposal designed to ban “assault” weapons. Like with the Medicaid proposal, backers of those initiatives gathered enough petition signatures to trigger Supreme Court review but decided to try to get on the 2022 ballot instead of the 2020 ballot.

Florida Decides Healthcare 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.

The new law (SB 1794) drew heavy debate during the legislative session that ended last month. Many Republican lawmakers and groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce have long sought to make it harder to pass ballot initiatives. Among other things, they say it should be difficult to amend the Florida Constitution.