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Published: Thursday, 7/7/2011 - Updated: 4 years ago

Health-care law's critics file petitions

Amendment in Ohio sought to halt measure

Chris Littleton, right, co-founder of the Ohio Liberty Council, standing with Maurice Thompson, director of 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, says the health-care law would expand the power of government. Chris Littleton, right, co-founder of the Ohio Liberty Council, standing with Maurice Thompson, director of 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, says the health-care law would expand the power of government.

COLUMBUS -- Linda Bishop, a retired teacher from Findlay, never was politically active -- until President Obama won passage of his signature health-care law with the help of what was then a Democratic-controlled Congress.

After working more than 14 months to gather signatures, Ms. Bishop was on hand Wednesday as the law's opponents filed more than 546,000 signatures with the Secretary of State's office in a bid to give Ohioans the constitutional right to reject the law's mandate that they obtain coverage.

"I have children and grandchildren," she said. "I'm concerned about all of our futures and don't like the direction our country is headed. I feel that if the federal government can force this product or any product on citizens, what's next? This should have been a states' rights issue from the beginning."

The petitions contained roughly 160,000 more than the 385,245 valid signatures of registered voters that must withstand scrutiny by county boards of elections to put the proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot. But the amendment's backers aren't ready to rest.

Knowing that many of the signatures are more than a year old, they will gather more to supplement the petitions should the initial count come up short.

Ms. Bishop said she's prepared to keep working.

"We know there will be ones that are invalid because people have moved or passed away," she said.

The petition effort has been spearheaded by the Ohio Liberty Council, the closest thing Ohio has to a statewide Tea Party organization.

RELATED CONTENT: Text of the Ohio Health-care Freedom Amendment

But its president, Chris Littleton, said support for the amendment stretches beyond that.

"I have to get up and purchase a commercial product because the government says I have to do that," he said.

"By that exact line of thinking, by that precedent, we would have to tell people they have to purchase a gym membership, because it accomplishes the same thing. I can tell you you must eat broccoli on Sundays or else I will fine you or put you in jail …

"That is not a solution to health care," Mr. Littleton said. "It simply increases the power of government …"

The left-leaning Progress- Ohio said a coalition of health advocates, nurses, and others plans to pore over the signatures.

"The lack of public support for the amendment to take away your health care is glaring as it took Ohioans for Health Care Freedom, with support from the Ohio Republican Party, almost two years to collect the amount of signatures they filed today," said Brian Rothenberg, the group's executive director.

"The promoters of this amendment that will take away your health-care rights are part of a political network determined to use any issue to score political points," he said. "In this case, the casualties will be Ohio citizens who will be denied the basics of having access to health care."

High validity rate

The general rule of thumb is to file roughly twice as many signatures as are needed to ensure that petitions survive scrutiny by county boards of elections and potentially the courts. The petitions filed Wednesday fall well below that threshold.

But the Ohio Project, the volunteer-driven arm behind the proposed amendment, says sampling tests show the effort to have an unusually high validity rate of roughly 85 percent.

Even if the signatures fall short on the initial count, which must be completed by July 26, backers of the proposed amendment would get a 10-day grace period to supplement the petitions.

At times while out gathering signatures, Ms. Bishop found herself standing next to someone who was gathering signatures for the repeal of Senate Bill 5, Ohio's new law restricting the collective-bargaining power of public employees.

Jason Mihalik delivers signatures to the Ohio Secretary of State. Opponents of the federal health care law say they have the signatures to get the issue on the state ballot. Jason Mihalik delivers signatures to the Ohio Secretary of State. Opponents of the federal health care law say they have the signatures to get the issue on the state ballot.

The Senate Bill 5 effort has been largely driven by private and public sector labor and the Ohio Democratic Party, which recently hosted a fund-raiser with Vice President Joe Biden.

The health-care constitutional amendment's largely volunteer-driven effort fell short of its initial goal of making the 2010 ballot, but it received a boost in recent months when the Ohio Republican Party stepped in with manpower to help put it over the top for 2011.

A separate issue advocacy group, Ohioans for Healthcare Freedom, was created that used both volunteers and paid signature-gatherers.

Of the 547,000 submitted, about 105,000 came from paid petition circulators, a process also used by the backers of the Senate Bill 5 repeal to supplement volunteers' signatures.

Gauging the policies

If both qualify for the ballot, the outcome could serve as a contest between the political parties' grass-roots efforts, an indicator of their health going into the 2012 president election, and a way of simultaneously gauging the policies of Mr. Obama and Republican Gov. John Kasich among Ohioans.

The proposed constitutional amendment is likely to face a court challenge over whether a state constitution can overrule the federal constitution, but Maurice Thompson, director of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, said the Ohio Supreme Court is unlikely to bar the question from the ballot before voters have spoken.

A number of court decisions in recent months have conflicted over whether the federal government has the authority under the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution to require the purchase of health insurance as part of governing interstate commerce.

Mr. Thompson said that even if the U.S. Supreme Court should ultimately uphold the federal government's right to impose the mandate, Ohioans could make their own claim that the law violates their state constitutional rights.

In the meantime, the amendment, if approved by voters, would prohibit the state of Ohio and local governments from imposing mandates similar to the one in Massachusetts, he said.

'To be left alone'

He said this effort is very different from other past major constitutional amendment efforts such as the one in 2009 legalizing casino gambling in the state.

"This is really the first time that people have come together to gather signatures in an effort like this simply for no self-interest, but to perpetuate philosophy, simply to be left alone," Mr. Thompson said.

Ohio's proposed constitutional amendment does not challenge some aspects of the law that have proved more popular, such as the prohibition against insurance companies' refusing coverage based on pre-existing conditions.

Instead, it targets the universal coverage provisions of the bill that require that citizens have health insurance by 2014, either through their employers, through the open insurance market, or through lower-cost, state-run health-care pools through which insurers would compete for customers.

It also challenges the requirement that certain employers provide coverage or face fines for failing to do so.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.

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