Last week, Maine voters tromped to the polls and by a 59-41 percent margin voted to expand Medicaid eligibility in that state famous for lobsters.
The Maine Legislature had five separate times sent Republican Gov. Paul LePage a bill to expand Medicaid. Five times he had exercised his veto.
In response, a low-income advocacy group called Maine Equal Justice Partners went out and gathered more than 65,000 signatures to put the issue on the ballot. Progressive groups nationally poured in $1.5 million in support of the campaign, swamping LePage and his allies.
The day after the vote, LePage was highly defiant, stating: "Credit agencies are predicting that this fiscally irresponsible Medicaid expansion will be ruinous to Maine’s budget. Therefore, my administration will not implement Medicaid expansion until it has been fully funded by the Legislature . . . .” Presumably, the Maine Legislature will find a way to push funding through in January. LePage claims the cost will be about $100 million a year. Supporters counter that the true number is closer to $50 million.
With the Maine vote, 32 states have now expanded Medicaid, many with Republican governors.
What about Idaho? We have our own ballot measure stirring. A group named Reclaim Idaho has filed an initiative with the goal to make the ballot in 2018. To do so, they will need to gather signatures equivalent to 6 percent of the number of Idaho voters registered in 2016. Some press reports say that is roughly 48,000 signatures. By my estimate, the number is closer to 56,000. That is a high hurdle. Idaho requires that the 6 percent requirement be met individually in 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts. That means organizers cannot just gather signatures in a few urban areas. They have to gather virtually statewide.
Another significant barrier is that gatherers must sign people who are actually registered to vote at the time they sign at the address they specify. Having been through a petition effort last year (to put on the ballot the creation of College of Eastern Idaho), I know that many will sign who are not actually registered or will specify the wrong address. Some signatures will be unreadable or won’t match the name they are registered under. In all likelihood the advocates will need a cushion of at least 30% or closer than 90,000 signatures.
Assuming Reclaim Idaho succeeds in getting their initiative on the ballot, will they win? A BSU survey said that roughly 70 percent of Idahoans want the Legislature to tackle Medicaid expansion. But, does that mean Idahoans are willing to vote for a measure doing the same thing at the same rate? I’m a bit skeptical, but wouldn’t be surprised if the measure were to start with a solid lead.
But, can it hold on? I’ve worked on statewide ballot measures before. Overall, it is really difficult to hold on to a lead. My theory is that the public takes initiatives very seriously. They are functioning like a Legislature, casting a vote to actually implement or kill a measure.
The weight of that responsibility causes voters to listen closely to pros and cons. Their instinct is to vote “no”. If the measure is too complicated or too costly or the potential negatives are too great, ballot issues will fail at the ballot box.
What intrigues me besides the issue itself is what impact will a vote on Medicaid expansion have on the 2018 Idaho elections? For instance, if popular, will candidates of both parties swing behind it, even those of a more conservative bent? Could the measure draw folks out to vote who generally don’t vote to the benefit or harm of one political party or the other? If the measure drops in support, its fall could harm those who initially embraced it. If the measure draws substantial attention and support, it will require most candidates at all levels to navigate the issue by staking out a position, putting at least some at risk.
Keep an eye on this measure. It may have impact beyond whether Medicaid expansion is a good idea for Idaho or not.