Supporters of Medicaid expansion have already spent more than $150,000 in a bid to block a referendum to give voters the last word.
New campaign finance reports show the Arizona Business Coalition, run by the state chamber of commerce, has kicked in $50,000. The same group also has spent another $57,500 on its own to fight the ballot measure.
The Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association contributed another $50,000.
Jaime Molera, who is coordinating the anti-referendum drive, said Tuesday some of the money is being spent to hire paid circulators to gather signatures on what essentially is a counter-petition, expressing support for expansion.
“They are very vocal, they’re very animated,” he said of referendum supporters. “But at the end of the day they’re a fringe, extreme minority.”
But Frank Antenori, one of the leaders of the referendum, said the move by Molera’s group is little more than an attempt to confuse people and prevent the foes of Medicaid expansion from getting the 86,405 valid signatures before Sept. 12.
That would put the issue on the 2014 ballot. More immediately, it would block the expansion plan approved by the Legislature from taking effect as scheduled on Jan. 1.
Antenori pointed out — and Molera conceded — the counter petitions actually have no legal force or effect. Antenori said circulators of the other petition drive are deceiving signers into what the petition does, a move he said results in some people believing they cannot sign the referendum petition because they’ve already signed one.
But Molera denied there is any effort to deceive.
The legislation would take advantage of a provision of the Affordable Care Act that allows states to expand eligibility to an adjusted figure of 138 percent of the federal poverty level, with the federal government picking up virtually all of the cost.
A voter-approved Arizona law requires coverage for anyone below the federal poverty level, about $19,530 a year for a family of three, though lawmakers stopped enrolling single adults below that level several years ago in a budget-cutting move. The move would add about 300,000 to the rolls of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state’s Medicaid program, including restoring coverage for those childless adults.
The state’s share for all of this, about $240 million, would come from what amounts to a tax on hospitals, with Gov. Jan Brewer saying it would generate about $1.6 billion in federal dollars.
Foes are using a constitutional provision which allows voters who gather enough signatures to force a public vote on legislation.
Brewer and Molera both contend the issue is exempt from being referred to the ballot because it deals with state funding. And Molera said Tuesday some of the money raised is going to hire lawyers for the upcoming legal fight should expansion foes gather enough signatures.
But the supporters of expansion, organized as Arizonans for Sensible Health Care Policy, also is paying people to gather signatures on its own petitions.
“They’re out there trying to deliberately undermine our efforts,” Antenori said. He said people are being told the petitions are about the Medicaid referendum, but failing to point out that the forms are not the referendum itself.
Molera said there’s nothing misleading about the petition efforts. He said his circulators are told to tell people “this is in support of what the Legislature and Gov. Brewer did to restore Medicaid in Arizona.”
But it does not matter, at least not legally, how many signatures Molera’s group gets: If referendum backers get the minimum number of signatures, it goes on the ballot — assuming it survives legal challenges — even if supporters of expansion gather more names on their petitions.
Molera said, though, the petitions do have a purpose.
“You have folks saying Arizonans didn’t want this,” he said. “What we’re saying is, if people have an opportunity to sign petitions, they want to sign something in support, and show public support, of an effort we think has huge approval.”
There’s also a political purpose behind the petitions.
Antenori said the decision by a handful of Republican legislators to side with Democrats for Medicaid expansion has aroused the ire of GOP rank and file. He said those Republicans will do all they can to ensure those five senators and nine representatives do not get reelected next year.
Molera said getting a lot of signatures on pro-expansion petitions, particularly from those who live in Republican legislative districts, is designed to send a different message to the lawmakers who went along.
“I think there’s a heck of a case to be made that there’s huge amount of supporters, Republicans, independents, that want to see this happen,” Molera said, calling those who target GOP supporters a “paper tiger.”