Medicaid expansion initiative sponsors fail to gather enough signatures to make Nov. 4 ballot


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HELENA, Montana — A proposal to expand Medicaid coverage to the working poor won't be on Nov. 4 election ballots after the measure's sponsor said Thursday there wasn't enough time to gather the required voter signatures.

The proposal to expand Medicaid to people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level — about 70,000 people in Montana — was the best-known among about a dozen ballot petitions that face a Friday deadline to qualify for the ballot.

The expansion is part of the nation's health care overhaul law, but the U.S. Supreme Court left it up to the states to decide whether to impose it. The Montana Legislature rejected the proposal in 2013, prompting the ballot initiative.

To make the ballot, a statutory initiative such as Medicaid expansion must receive signatures from 5 percent of the total number of qualified voters in Montana, including from 5 percent of voters in each of 34 legislative House districts. That comes to 24,175 voter signatures from across the state.

Initiative sponsor Kim Abbott said organizers collected more than 25,000 signatures, but an internal review of a large sample of those signatures showed that about 30 percent were not valid.

Sponsors would have to collect 32,000 to ensure they had enough voter signatures to qualify, Abbott said. "In the end, the clock ran out. We needed a couple of more weeks," she said.

Gov. Steve Bullock, a supporter of Medicaid expansion, said in an email that he would not give up the effort. His spokesman, Dave Parker, told The Associated Press that likely means going back to the Legislature.

"The 2015 session is a viable opportunity to write this and finally get it done," Parker said.

The initiative drive got off to a bumpy start after the Healthy Montana Initiative ballot committee formed in June 2013. The original measure wasn't submitted for approval until November, and it was withdrawn before a review began.

A new version was submitted in December, but a legal review by Attorney General Tim Fox's office said it would have illegally appropriated money without legislative approval.

The sponsors withdrew the measure and submitted a third version in January, which passed Fox's legal review in February. The initiative then faced a court challenge by opponents and Fox's office over issues with the measure's fiscal statement.

The Montana Supreme Court dismissed the challenge in April.

The delays and uncertainty around the legal challenge affected the signature-gathering efforts, Abbott said. "The delays hurt us. There is no question about that," she said.

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