Ballots on the back burner

As momentous as the Legislature’s debate on health-care reform this year is billed to be, the voters still may have the biggest role to play.

Interest groups on all sides of the issue are ready to go to the ballot in 2008 to get what they want, or to undo what they don’t want.

“If we can’t accomplish enough by September, we’re prepared to go to the ballot in November ’08,” said Sal Rosselli, president of the Service Employees International Union’s California State Council.

For the SEIU, the possibility of a ballot measure is good leverage on the legislative process.

“We established health-care reform as our No. 1 priority. With the developments that have gone on over the last couple of months, it’s very exciting,” Rosselli said.

For the SEIU, the goal is a legislative solution that encompasses universal access to health care by the end of this legislative session. The union also sees the various proposals to impose an individual mandate to buy health insurance as problematic.

If legislative efforts fall short, there is always the ballot.

“We have the political will, the capacity and resources to go to the ballot. I think that’s leverage to get enough,” Rosselli explained.

“The possibility of a ballot measure is always there,” agreed Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, an advocacy organization closely allied with SEIU. Like other major advocacy organizations, Wright said that he is waiting to see what can be crafted in the legislative process.

The Legislature’s last major health-care reform package was SB 2, passed by both houses in 2003 and signed by Governor Gray Davis on his way out of office. In 2004, the insurance industry, Chamber of Commerce and restaurant industry joined forces to put SB 2 up for referendum in the form of Proposition 72, and then spent millions to defeat it. But the referendum nearly backfired, with 49.2 percent of voters voting yes.

Wright said that the closeness of the vote on Proposition 72 is encouraging. “It made it clear that the public would act if the Legislature didn’t.”

Vincent Sollitto, spokesman California Chamber of Commerce, said it was too early to predict whether the Chamber would launch another referendum if the Legislature passed reforms odious to businesses. After all, there’s hardly any actual legislation introduced to argue over at this early date. His more immediate concern is the possibility of new health-care taxes that become law without a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

“I can’t imagine there wouldn’t be a legal challenge,” said Sollitto.
Jot Condie with the California Restaurant Association told Capitol Weekly last month that the CRA “would have no choice” but to go to the ballot against health-care reform that was unfair to his industry.

But Condie acknowledged that voters might be in a different frame of mind than two years ago. Indeed, the closeness of the Proposition 72 vote suggests that the unions and advocacy groups on the left might have the upper hand in any ballot battle.

“We’re ready to go to the ballot, whether on offense or on defense,” said Rosselli.

It’s even possible that an ambitious “single payer” health-care proposal could wind up on the ballot sometime in 2008. The last time a single-payer system was put before voters, Proposition 186 was crushed at the polls in 1994, gaining only 27 percent of the vote.

“I don’t think we should be thinking in terms of a ballot initiative before we see what shakes out this year,” said Donna Gerber of the California Nurses Association. The CNA has been one of the most aggressive supporters of single payer.

But Gerber said that to implement a financing mechanism for single payer “probably involves a ballot initiative,” possibly in 2008 or 2009.

The Legislature’s main champion of single payer agreed that the ballot may ultimately be the best option. “I want to put single payer on the ballot when it’s ready,” state Senator Sheila Kuehl told Capitol Weekly. She believes support for single payer has increased “20-fold” in the last four years. “We need to make sure the level of support we’re seeing is real.”

One person who isn’t waiting to go to the ballot is private citizen David Head from the East Bay. Head was so incensed by Governor Schwarzenegger’s veto of Kuehl’s SB 840 last year that he downloaded the text of the bill and filed it with the secretary of state as an initiative for the November 2008 ballot.

Head said he has contacted Keuhl’s office and other single-payer advocates, but that “they have not been supportive at all. They have been unanimous that this is a bad idea.” Head added that he hasn’t given up on the campaign, but declined to say how the signature-gathering effort was faring.

Contact Cosmo Garvin at

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