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Updated Jun 19, 2013 - 2:46 pm

Arizona group files referendum to block Medicaid expansion

PHOENIX — A group opposed to Gov. Jan Brewer’s successful legislative push
to expand Medicaid under provisions of the federal health care overhaul filed a
citizen’s referendum to block the new measure Wednesday, just two days after it
was signed into law.

The United Republican Alliance of Principled Conservatives led by former state
Sens. Frank Antenori and Ron Gould now has until Sept. 11 to gather 86,405 valid
signatures. If they succeed, the expansion will be blocked until the November
2014 election.

“We really don’t have any choice,” Gould said Wednesday. “This is the only
way we can stop this expansion from happening, since it’s come out of the
Legislature.”

Brewer overcame strong opposition from conservative Republicans in the
Legislature by building a coalition of Democrats and some Republicans to push
the bill through last week. She signed the law allowing more than 300,000 people
to join the state plan on Jan. 1 on Monday.

Medicaid expansion is a key part of President Barack Obama’s heath care
overhaul law, and Brewer surprised many when she announced in January that she
would embrace expansion and ask the Legislature to approve it. She cited a
Supreme Court decision upholding the law and Obama’s re-election as reasons to
act. She also said the law would add thousands of new jobs, provide health care
to vulnerable Arizonans and rescue hospitals saddled with millions of dollars in
unpaid bills for care they provide to the uninsured.

The plan will cover the state’s costs by allowing the director of the state’s
Medicaid plan, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, or AHCCCS, to
levy a new $250 million a year assessment on hospitals. Opponents call that a
tax that requires a 2/3 vote in the Legislature. The expansion bill passed
through the Legislature without meeting that threshold.

Brewer’s staff has said a previous appeals court decision prevents referendums
on appropriations and laws, so a court battle could erupt if the group is
successful.

“And I expect to be challenged at every possible turn that they can challenge
us at,” Gould said. “Because the hospitals that claim poverty apparently have
a lot of money for political actions.”

Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson repeated Wednesday that the governor’s office
doesn’t believe the law can be referred to voters.

“Beyond that you really get into the issue of whether or not this is good for
the state of Arizona,” Benson said. “This looks to be an effort that will
benefit two out-of-work former lawmakers and be a great detriment to the state
of Arizona.”

Antenori said he expects challenges on whether the law can be referred to
voters, on the referendum language and on the signatures when they are filed.
Lawyers with the Goldwater Institute, a conservative group opposed to expansion,
are prepared to defend the referendum.

“We don’t think there should be a challenge, of course, given that the
constitution is pretty clear on this,” said Christine Sandefur, an attorney for
the group. “It’s a new tax and an expanded program, so it’s definitely
referable.”

Any legal action to try to block the referendum would be handled by Restoring
Arizona, a coalition of hospitals, business groups, the AARP and others
supporting Brewer’s Medicaid expansion effort.

Restoring Arizona spokesman Jaime Molera said the group’s lawyers are looking
at whether they can sue to block the referendum now or must wait until all the
signatures are gathered, “which we believe is doubtful.” Molera also
criticized the expansion opponents for filing the referendum.

“For this extreme minority group, very minority and very extreme, to try to
usurp what the majority believes and what the Legislature has done is
nonsensical,” Molera said.

Goldwater is mulling a lawsuit, arguing that the state constitution requires a
2/3 vote to raise taxes. Sandefur said Monday the group may also challenge on a
separation of powers argument because the state’s Medicaid director is given
power to set the assessment and exempt some hospitals. They’ll have to wait
until the law takes effect in about 85 days to sue.

The group plans to use volunteers to collect signatures, a daunting task during
an Arizona summer, but Gould said precinct committee members across the state
are incensed and ready to work.

“They’re upset at the governor who is a member of our party and they’re also
upset at the Republicans who crossed the aisle and voted with Democrats to
expand Medicaid,” Gould said.

Antenori said at least two outside groups have offered to pay for hired
petition circulators.

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