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Judge dismisses lawsuit challenging petition to put Medicaid expansion before Nebraska voters

August 29, 2018

LINCOLN — A judge has tossed out a lawsuit intended to prevent voters from deciding whether more Nebraskans should qualify for Medicaid assistance.

Lancaster County District Judge Darla Ideus on Tuesday rejected arguments that the successful Medicaid petition is “invalid and legally insufficient.” The decision removes another potential barrier to putting Medicaid expansion on the November ballot.

Opponents of Medicaid expansion said during a hearing last week that the petition contains more than one subject, in violation of the Nebraska Constitution. They also argued that the petition does not properly disclose as a sponsor the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest.

J.L. Spray, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said Tuesday that he will need to read the ruling and discuss it with his clients before a decision is made on whether to appeal. State Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft and former State Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial brought the lawsuit, saying they worry about the tax implications of Medicaid expansion.

If appealed, the case would have to remain on a fast track to meet a Sept. 14 deadline for certification of issues and candidates on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Meg Mandy, manager of the petition campaign, said Tuesday that it’s “a great day for democracy.” She said Republicans, Democrats, independents and others signed the petition to let voters decide the issue after repeated attempts at Medicaid expansion failed in the State Legislature.

“If they decide to appeal, we’ll see them in the Nebraska Supreme Court,” she said. “If not, we’re going to work really hard until Election Day to see that it passes.”

Supporters of Medicaid expansion submitted almost 137,000 signatures to put the issue on the ballot. On Friday, Secretary of State John Gale certified almost 105,000 signatures as valid, far more than the 84,000 required to put the measure before voters.

The proposed expansion would provide health coverage to single adults and couples without minor children who cannot qualify for Medicaid now, as well as parents and disabled people with incomes up to 138 percent of the poverty level — $16,753 for a single person or $34,638 for a family of four.

The petition proposes the expansion of Medicaid and directs the State Department of Health and Human Services to maximize federal financial participation in funding medical assistance. Opponents argued that the two elements are separate and distinct, in violation of a state constitutional requirement that all initiative measures have a single subject.

But the judge said prior court rulings have allowed multiple elements to appear on an initiative measure as long as they have a “natural and necessary connection” to each other. She ruled that the two elements in the petition are closely related.

The plaintiffs also tried to get the petition declared invalid by arguing that Nebraska Appleseed should have been listed as a sponsor. The judge referred to a recent Nebraska Supreme Court ruling that said the law requires those who are responsible for the initiative petition to sign on as official sponsors but does not require the same of all active supporters of the measure.

The judge dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims with prejudice, meaning that they can’t be refiled in court.

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