[UPDATE] Fla. Voters to Get Obamacare Question

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In what likely will be a fierce partisan battle, Floridians next year will vote on a proposed constitutional amendment that targets President Obama’s signature health-care law.

The House on Wednesday approved a ballot measure aimed at allowing Florida residents to opt out of the most controversial part of the law --- a requirement starting in 2014 that Americans buy health insurance.

The 80-37 vote on SJR 2 followed almost straight party lines, with only Greenville Democrat Leonard Bembry joining Republicans in support. The Senate also overwhelmingly approved the measure in March.

House debate echoed the national partisanship that has surrounded the law, which Republicans deride as “Obamacare.’’ Critics say the law is an abuse of federal power, in large part because of the requirement that people buy insurance.

“I say keep your hands off my freedom,’’ said Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican who sponsored the measure.

But Democrats defended the health law, officially known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and said many uninsured people have to go to hospital emergency rooms for care. They said hospitals pass on those costs to people who buy health insurance.

If the argument is that people don’t want to pay for other people’s health care – it falls apart because people without health insurance still get care paid for by everyone else, said Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando.

“You are paying for health care --- the most expensive form of health care --- when people go to the emergency room,’’ said Thompson.

Lawmakers approved a nearly identical amendment proposal last year, but the Florida Supreme Court kicked it off the 2010 ballot because of misleading wording. Plakon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, tweaked the wording to address the court’s concerns and brought it back during this year’s session.

The proposal would add provisions to the Florida Constitution that say, in part, a “law or rule may not compel, directly or indirectly, any person or employer to purchase, obtain or otherwise provide for health care coverage.’’

Supporters hope that would allow Floridians to choose not to participate in the insurance requirement, which has become known as the “individual mandate.’’ Florida and other states also are challenging the legality of the requirement in a closely watched lawsuit, which is scheduled for arguments next month in an Atlanta-based appeals court.

Democrats have long argued that the proposed constitutional amendment would not ensure Floridians can opt out of the individual mandate. That is because the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution generally leads to federal laws trumping state laws when conflicts arise.

Such nuances, however, didn’t play a part in Wednesday’s debate, as Republicans and Democrats argued about the health law and the role of the federal government. Those arguments likely will be common through November 2012, when Obama also will seek re-election.

“This Obamacare, to me, is the single most divisive issue that has come across our country since the Vietnam War,’’ said Punta Gorda Republican Rep. Paige Kreegel, who is a physician.

But Hallandale Beach Democrat Joe Gibbons said the House shouldn’t “make decisions solely on partisan political preferences.’’

“We should be concerned with healing and not repealing,’’ Gibbons said.

[UPDATE] 5-2 10:24 AM -- TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) --

Gov. Rick Scott is getting a bill that would prohibit Floridians from being required to purchase health insurance.

The Republican-controlled Senate on Monday voted 30-7 for the
measure (HB 1193) previously approved by the House.

It would put Florida in direct conflict with the federal health
care overhaul that will require most people eventually to have
insurance coverage.

Legal experts say federal laws trump state legislation.

Scott, a former hospital chain CEO, has been a vociferous
opponent of the health care law.

All Republicans voted for the bill. They were joined by one
Democrat, Sen. Gwen Margolis of North Miami Beach.

The Senate in March also passed a proposed state constitutional
amendment (SJR 2) with a similar ban. It is waiting for a floor
vote in the House.


[UPDATE] 3-8 10:11 PM --

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration is appealing a judge's ruling that found the federal overhaul of the health care system unconstitutional.

In a two-page notice Tuesday to a federal court in Pensacola, Fla., the Justice Department said the Health and Human Services Department and other federal defendants were appealing to the federal appeals court in Atlanta, with court papers and arguments to follow.

On Jan. 31, U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson ruled against the Obama administration's health care overhaul on grounds that Congress exceeded its authority by requiring nearly all Americans to carry health insurance.

The ruling came in a challenge to the law by 26 of the 50 states.

Vinson ruled last week that states must continue implementing the law while the case makes its way through the courts.


[UPDATE] 3-4 10am --

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 3, 2011......Two lawmakers who say Gov. Rick Scott has no authority to scrub a Tampa to Orlando bullet train, brought their case to the Florida Supreme Court Thursday in what may be only the first in a series of challenges to the CEO-turned-governor’s approach to the job.

With $2.4 billion in federal funds hanging in the balance, Sens. Thad Altman and Arthenia Joyner brought their case to the state’s highest court as individual lawmakers. But the pair undoubtedly represented colleagues in both chambers who believe Scott overstepped his authority by cancelling a high speed rail project approved by lawmakers in December 2009.

“Rather than faithfully implementing that law (Scott) has pretty much said he is going to refuse to implement it,” Altman told reporters after the short arguments by his lawyer and the governor’s general counsel. “The only entity that can do that is the Legislature, not the governor.”

Scott’s General Counsel Charles Trippe countered before the justices that a ruling favoring the legislators would place the court in the position of forcing a governor to spend money that had yet to be received by the state. Trippe said nothing in state law could force the governor to spend the federal money offered as a carrot to states to develop alternative transportation networks.

“The governor is not demanded by the federal government to do anything,” Trippe said. “He only has to spend what has been appropriated. None of that federal grant money has been appropriated so he has no duty to spend it.”

During questioning, justices pressed the lawmakers’ attorney, Clifton McClelland, to explain how Scott’s decision on the yet-to-be received federal money would constitute an overstep. Justice Barbara Pariente echoed the sentiments of at least two other justices that the lawsuit seemed premature, because lawmakers had yet to specifically divvy up the federal funds.

Chief Justice Charles Canady, a former Congressman and the only former state lawmaker on the court, also questioned the legislators’ assertion that Scott is barred from vetoing future state expenditures related to the high speed project – because lawmakers already put into law that the train should be built.

“If there is anything that is integral to the executive function under our constitution, it is the governor’s ability to veto measures coming from the Legislature, including his authority to exercise a line item veto in response to appropriations,” Canady said.

The court is under pressure to move quickly. U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has given Florida until Friday to decide whether to take the money. If not it may be sent to other states.

Last month, Scott notified LaHood that the project was too risky and could leave Florida taxpayers holder the bag for a multi-billion dollar boondoggle. Several senators sent a Scott a letter urging him to accept the funds.

The federal money would pay more than 90 percent of project costs for the Tampa to Orlando route, the first leg of a system backers say could eventually extend south to Miami.

On Thursday, Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, withdrew his name from that letter, saying he had wanted to send a message to Scott that he had to work with the Legislature, but didn’t want to force him to accept the federal money now.

“In my attempt to disagree with the unilateral decision to refuse the funds for the High Speed Rail, I am afraid that my signature on this letter has been misconstrued as support for a High Speed Rail project in Florida,” Bennett wrote.

The Supreme Court hasn’t given a timeline for when it may rule.



Judge Vinson Issues Response to Federal Government in Health Care Lawsuit

TALLAHASSEE, FLA- Attorney General Pam Bondi today announced that Judge Roger Vinson has issued a response to the Department of Justice’s most recent motion in the health care lawsuit. The judge’s order granted the Department of Justice’s motion to clarify but then scolds DOJ for waiting two weeks to file that motion. The judge treated this as a motion to stay, as we requested, and granted the motion for stay on the condition that DOJ files their appeal within seven days along with a request for expedited review.

“We are pleased that Judge Vinson reaffirmed that his initial decision was
a complete victory for the states in striking down the health care act in
its entirety. With this order from Judge Vinson, the 26 states and National
Federation of Independent Business as plaintiffs are assured that there
will be no more stalling from the federal government,” said Attorney
General Bondi. “While we are disappointed that the stay was granted, we are satisfied that DOJ now has only seven days to file their appeal and seek expedited review or they will lose the stay.”

A copy of Judge Vinson's order is available here:


[UPDATE] 3-3 2pm -- PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) --

A federal judge in Florida says states must continue implementing the president's health care overhaul even though he has declared it unconstitutional.

Florida and 25 states sued to block the law, and District Judge
Roger Vinson has ruled in their favor.

He says Obama administration attorneys have one week to appeal.
If they don't meet that deadline, Vinson says the states can
consider the law invalid.

The case is one of several challenges to the health care law,
which is almost certain to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In his ruling, Vinson says it's in the best interest of the
nation to continue with the massive health overhaul while the cases
work their way through the legal system.



The federal health care law requiring Americans to buy health insurance unlawfully expands the powers to Congress by forcing consumers to buy something they may not want, a Florida federal judge “reluctantly” ruled on Monday in a challenge by Florida and 25 other states.

U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson rejected the lynchpin of federal efforts to change the way health care is delivered in the United States, saying Congress cannot compel people to purchase health insurance.

“It is difficult to imagine that a nation which began, at least in part, as the result of opposition to a British mandate giving the East India Company a monopoly and imposing a nominal tax on all tea sold in America would have set out to create a government with the power to force people to buy tea in the first place,” Vinson wrote in ruling invalid the required purchase of health insurance.

“I must reluctantly conclude that Congress exceeded the bounds of its authority in passing the act with the individual mandate,” Vinson wrote.

Despite finding the law, Vinson refused a request by Florida and other states to stop the federal government from moving forward while the case winds its way through an appellate process that will likely lead to the U.S. Supreme Court. Keeping the law in effect, pending appeals, means sections already in force will continue to be. The White House said it will proceed with planning for the law to go into effect.

In December, Vinson heard three hours of testimony in the lawsuit, with the plaintiffs – two private citizens and the National Federation of Independent Business, in addition to the 26 states - that the sweeping change to the $2.5 trillion U.S. health-care system oversteps constitutional limits on federal power and would force massive spending on hard-pressed state governments.

Vinson said on Monday that the secondary complaint of the states’– that the law would greatly expand their obligation to pay for Medicaid patients – was legitimately within the federal government’s reach. But the individual mandate was clearly not, he said.

“It should be emphasized that while the individual mandate was clearly “necessary and essential” to the Act as drafted, it is not “necessary and essential” to health care reform in general,” Vinson wrote. “It is undisputed that there are various other (Constitutional) ways to accomplish what Congress wanted to do.”

Florida was the lead plaintiff among the states in the suit, which was started by former Attorney General Bill McCollum, who filed it the day after the law passed. The current attorney general, Pam Bondi, inherited the case – but did so enthusiastically, campaigning on a promise to continue it.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi addresses the media following a court ruling invalidating the federal health care law.


“We all know we need health care reform; this is not the way to do it,” Bondi said after Vinson’s ruling. “It’s unconstitutional. It’s a violation of our rights… It’s about our liberty. It’s about more than health care.”

Vinson’s ruling was immediately hailed by groups that have called the law, dubbed by critics as “ObamaCare,” an overreach.

“ObamaCare is an unprecedented and unconstitutional infringement on the liberty of the American people,” Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement released immediately after the ruling. “Patients should have more control over health care decisions than a federal government that is spending money faster than it can be printed.”

Vinson’s ruling is the second time a federal judge has ruled against all or portions of the law enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in March 2010. A federal judge in Virginia struck down the measure, also ruling that the individual mandate was unconstitutional. Federal officials, however, pointed out that the record is mixed – the law has also been upheld in a couple of other challenges.

Still, critics of the law said Vinson’s ruling should be a signal for Congress to readdress the issue.

“With two straight federal courts ruling ObamaCare unconstitutional this sends a clear message to the United States Senate that it should follow the action of the House and repeal the health care law,” Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island said in a statement.

“Now small business owners can plan on creating jobs rather than figure out how to comply with the federal health care act,” said Bill Herrle, Florida director for the National Federatation of Independent Business.

U.S. Department of Justice officials said they will appeal to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which has jurisdiction over cases originating in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

“We strongly disagree with the court’s ruling today and continue to believe – as other federal courts have found – that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional,” DOJ spokesperson Tracy Schmaler said. “There is clear and well-established legal precedent that Congress acted within its constitutional authority in passing this law and we are confident that we will ultimately prevail on appeal.”

The Center for American Progress, a liberal leaning Washington, D.C.-based group also blasted Vinson’s ruling as “judicial activism,” flipping a common Republican refrain when judges rule against legislation that has been passed by legislative bodies. That charge is common in Florida where Republican lawmakers have repeatedly railed against judges who invalidate laws passed by elected officials.

“For all of my colleagues on the conservative side who criticized activist judges for their lack of deference to the legislative and executive branches of government, I hope they’ll be equally as critical of this decision,” said CAP Chief Operating Officer Needra Tanden, who worked on crafting the legislation.

Walter Dellinger, chair of the Appellate Practice at the Los Angeles-based O’Melveny & Meyers law firm, added that Vinson’s decision was reminiscent of early legal verdicts against the Social Security Act in the 1930s.

“I think it will fare no better,” Dellinger said. “Lower courts routinely strike down landmark legislation before it’s upheld,” he said, noting cases involving Social Security, racial segregation and the Voting Rights Act.

“Under this view, Congress has no power to enact a minimum wage,” he added.


Gov. Rick Scott's statement on judge's ruling:

Tallahassee, Fla. – “I applaud the ruling today by Judge Vinson. In making his ruling, the judge has confirmed what many of us knew from the start; ObamaCare is an unprecedented and unconstitutional infringement on the liberty of the American people. I commend Attorney General Bondi and her team for their work to present the state’s case, and I will continue to work with her to protect Floridians from this overreaching federal mandate. Patients should have more control over health care decisions than a federal government that is spending money faster than it can be printed.”

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