by Keith Laing
The News Service of Florida
After being fast-tracked through its first committee stop Wednesday, a proposed constitutional amendment to prevent the federal government from compelling people to participate in any health care system could be the first bill passed during next year’s session, Senate President Mike Haridopolos said Wednesday.
The resolution, SJR 2, easily cleared the Senate Health Regulation Committee, with only the Democratic members of the panel, Sens. Jeremy Ring (D-Margate) and Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood), voting against it.
The proposal is a tweaked version of what would have been Amendment 9 in this year’s election had the Florida Supreme Court not thrown the question off the ballot.
The 9-2 vote Wednesday came a week before the next round of legal hearings in the lawsuit filed by Florida and 19 other states over the health care law.
But a vote on a constitutional amendment could not happen for at least two years. Haridopolos said Wednesday it was important to try again to allow voters to weigh in, even if the issue may be decided by the federal courts by the time they have the chance.
Haridopolos noted that the proposed constitutional amendment that started working through the Legislature Wednesday is changed a bit from last year’s, in deference to the Supreme Court’s concerns that kept it off the ballot.
“The courts have found certain sentences not to their liking,” he told reporters after the vote.
“We’ve respected the courts, showed respect for the checks and balances system. We’ve listened to their concerns and we’ve adjusted our bill accordingly. I think that’s what we should do as legislators. I also think that voters want a final say in this and I hope this is the first step toward making that happen,” he said.
Haridopolos said long debate in the state and country over health care justified the bill’s prominent position atop the Senate’s agenda, which was made clear not only by his sponsorship, because leaders rarely sponsor legislation, but by its bill number, the first assigned to a Senate measure for next year.
“It might,” he said when asked by reporters if it would be the first bill approved by the Senate next year.
“This is a bill that everyone is familiar with. This is nothing new, but I’m putting it under rules I’ve asked others to follow, which is three committee stops,” Haridopolos said. “If it makes it through the process, if it’s ready for us when session begins, then that’d be great.”
He downplayed the timing of the first committee hearing, just days before U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson is set to hear oral arguments on the request from the federal Department of Justice that he uphold the health care law and reject outgoing Attorney General Bill McCollum’s push to see it overturned.
“The bill was ready,” Haridopolos said of the measure being ratified by a committee so early in the process. “Because it’s ready we placed it up there.”
Florida executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business Bill Herrle urged the panel to approve the constitutional resolution because the recent election showed voters were interested in “federalism.”
NFIB has joined the states and two Florida residents in the lawsuit, which argues that the health care law violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution by requiring residents to purchase insurance.
The plaintiffs also contended that the requirement that states expand their Medicaid rolls violates the states’ rights guaranteed in the 10th Amendment. However, the Department of Justice has countered that the constitution gives Congress broad taxation powers and that the government could levy penalties for noncompliance, an argument that carried the day with a Michigan judge earlier this year.
Several Tea Party activists, including Henry Kelley of Fort Walton Beach, urged the Health Regulation committee to keep the proposed amendment moving forward.
“The federal legislation that was passed is not universal health care, but rather it is universal insurance, which is a key and often ignored distinction,” Kelley told the committee.
“While I do not like how easy it is to amend the Florida constitution, the power is given to the people to change it,” he said.
“The language in this new resolution is clear and precise and offers me as a Floridian valuable protections.”
Florida AFL-CIO legislative director Rich Templin went the other way on the proposed amendment, telling lawmakers the amendment they were considering could “hinder future legislators’ ability to tackle many of the problems facing the people of our state and the health care system as a whole.”
He said that he stands “in solidarity with our small businesses who are seeing their health care premiums exploding … personal people in the state who are paying out of pocket,” he said. “The problem is that we have to increase the pool. We have to get more people in the insurance system to lower those costs.”
He said “that’s the way insurance works…or of course we can eliminate private insurance, and go to a more public plan.” He quickly acknowledged that would have no chance of being approved now by either the more conservative Florida Legislature or the new Republican-led U.S. Congress.