California Health Care Reform Initiative Filed

The next chapter in California’s long saga of comprehensive health care reform started on Friday, even as the current chapter continues to play itself out. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez filed an initiative with the Attorney General to finance the reforms embodied in Assembly Bill X1-1. That legislation, passed by the Assembly and waiting on Senate approval, provides a framework for reform. However, the entire bill is contingent on passage of the financing initiative. If the initiative fails, the bill’s provision vanish as if they never existed and everything reverts to the status quo. Well, a status quo full of frustrated staffers who worked extremely hard to enact comprehensive health care reform, but the status quo nonetheless. 

At this stage, the campaign to enact the financing initiative, known for now as the Secure and Affordable Health Care Act of 2008, is all about timing and signatures. (The Sacramento Bee’s CapitolAlert site has a useful post by Shane Goldmacher on initiative timing).  

By filing their initiative on December 28th the Governor and Speaker started a countdown for the Attorney General . The Attorney General drafts the title and a summary of the initiative and asks the Department of Finance and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee for a fiscal analysis. The finance folks have 25 working days to get their results in. The Attorney General’s office has seven weeks in total to complete its assignment, in this case, until February 15th.

Once past these hurdles, signature gathering can begin. It takes just shy of 695,000 valid signatures to qualify an initiative. The rule of thumb is, to get 695,000 valid ones, initiative sponsors need to submit roughly 1.2 million signatures. To provide time for the appropriate county agencies to review, validate and count the signatures in time to qualify an initiative for the November 2008 ballot, the Secretary of State is recommending sponsors submit their petitions to the appropriate county office by April 21st.

Doing the math: if the Attorney General and Department of Finance take the full seven weeks they’re allowed, sponsors would have less than 10 weeks to get 1.2 million signatures submitted before the April 21st deadline. But it’s unlikely the Attorney General and Department of Finance will take the full seven weeks. Attorney General Jerry Brown has every incentive — and more than enough capacity — to do his part quickly. And as the Department of Finance is part of his administration, it’s safe to assume that Governor Schwarzenegger can get this initiative moved to the top of the Department’s in-box. And can sign off on any overtime that might be needed (budget deficit not withstanding). So it’s more likely supporters of the initiative will have closer to 12-14 weeks to get a sufficient number of valid John Hancocks on their petitions. As for the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, well, its membership is appointed by Speaker Nunez and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata. ‘Nuff said.

Ten weeks is not a lot of time, but it’s enough. All it takes is money. Lots of money. Most of those folks you see in front of supermarkets get paid on a per-signature basis. With enough money you can hire enough clipboards to get the job done. Backers of the health care initiative will be able to supplement paid signature seekers with volunteers from their union and consumer group allies. And how hard will it be to get people to sign? “Excuse me. Will you help Governor Schwarzenegger fix California’s broken health care system? It’ll only take a minute.” The task is eminently doable.

By filing the initiative even before the bill makes it through the Senate (still an open question), the Governor and Speaker secured valuable time time for their signature gathering process. They also put pressure on Senator Perata to have his house pass the legislation pretty much as written. If the Senate modifies the bill in ways that impacts the cost of the package, the initiative would need to be rewritten. Any such changes would need to be pretty important to justify starting the filing process all over. Because while a refiling starts the seven weeks given the Attorney General, it doesn’t change the April 21st deadline. So the delay reduces the time available to get signatures.

This doesn’t mean the Senate can’t put it’s stamp on the legislation. There’s plenty of elements of ABX1-1 that don’t impact the funding. Changing those provisions is fair game — and in some places, a very good idea. And there’s still a fair chance the legislation won’t pass the Senate. If the Legislative Analyst report Senator Perata requested shows it will make fixing the state’s budget problems harder, the initiative may never see the light of day.

But it was smart politics for the Governor and Speaker to file their initiative now. After all, Election Day, November 4, 2008, is only 10 months away.