LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska's highest court dismissed a lawsuit Wednesday that would have stripped a Medicaid expansion proposal off the November ballot, clearing the way for voters to decide a measure that has been repeatedly rejected by the Republican-dominated Legislature.
The Nebraska Supreme Court's rejection of a GOP-led lawsuit was a victory for advocates who say the measure would help an estimated 90,000 low-income residents get covered under the Affordable Care Act.
"The Nebraska Supreme Court has once again landed on the side of voters," said Meg Mandy, campaign manager for the ballot group Insure the Good Life. The 135,000 signatures gathered during the ballot petition drive "strongly shows that people want to have the opportunity to vote on this issue."
The measure would cover residents aged 19 to 64 who earn too much to qualify for regular Medicaid but too little to get federal subsidies under the health care law.
Many who fall into the so-called coverage gap work in jobs that traditionally have no health care benefits, such as fast-food, hotels and construction. The health care law was initially written to cover those workers, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the federal government can't penalize states that refuse to expand Medicaid.
Nebraska's Legislature has rejected six previous attempts to expand Medicaid. Utah and Idaho have similar ballot measures pending this year. Maine became the first state to expand Medicaid through a ballot measure in 2017.
The lawsuit that sought to overturn the citizen-led ballot drive was filed by state Sen. Lydia Brasch and former state Sen. Mark Christensen, both Republicans who helped derail similar bills in the Legislature. Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts opposes expanding Medicaid as well, arguing the state can't afford it without diverting money from other services or raising taxes, which he has pledged not to do.
In a statement from their attorney, J.L. Spray, Brasch and Christensen said the measure could face future lawsuits if voters approve it.
"There is still no way for the Legislature to fund the expansion of Medicaid without damaging existing programs, like aid to education, property tax relief, and existing parts of the Medicaid system," Brasch and Christensen said in the joint statement.
State officials last month certified nearly 105,000 of the 135,000 signatures from the statewide ballot drive, far more than the 84,269 that were needed.
The court rejected arguments that a major supporter of the ballot initiative, the nonprofit advocacy group Nebraska Appleseed, should have been listed as an official petition sponsor because of its involvement in the campaign.
It also dismissed assertions that the ballot violated the Nebraska Constitution's "single subject" rule, which requires ballot measures to raise only one question for voters. Brasch and Christensen contended that the ballot measure raised two questions — whether the state should expand Medicaid and whether state officials should take steps to ensure Nebraska gets as much federal money from the expansion as possible. Justices affirmed a district court ruling that said the two issues were naturally intertwined.
Brasch and Christensen also argued that the measure ran afoul of the state constitution's separation-of-powers clause by requiring the Ricketts administration to develop a Medicaid expansion plan without guidance from state lawmakers.
In its ruling, the court said petition drives to place an issue on the ballot are a "precious" right of the public that courts should protect whenever possible. They "should not be circumscribed by restrictive legislation or narrow and strict interpretation of the statutes pertaining to its exercise," Justice John Freudenberg wrote in the opinion.