OMAHA, Neb. — A proposal to expand Medicaid in Nebraska moved closer Friday to getting on the November ballot after the state's top elections official determined there are enough valid signatures to send the question to voters.
Secretary of State John Gale said 104,477 valid signatures were certified by his office. The effort needed at least 84,269 to make it onto the ballot.
Additionally, organizers were required to gather signatures from at least 5 percent of the registered voters in 38 of Nebraska's 93 counties. Gale said that margin was met in 47 counties.
"The measure will be placed on the 2018 general election ballot, barring an order from the district court handling the pending lawsuit that challenges the initiative petition," Gale said in a written statement.
The news from Gale's office comes as a Lancaster County District judge is weighing a decision in a lawsuit seeking to block the proposal from making it to the November ballot.
The referendum effort is being spearheaded by the group Insure the Good Life, which wants to expand Medicaid to about 90,000 more residents ages 19 to 64, who earn too much to qualify for regular Medicaid but too little to be eligible for financial assistance under the Affordable Care Act.
Many residents such as hotel, fast-food and construction workers who fall into the so-called coverage gap work in service jobs with no benefits.
Lancaster County District Judge Darla Ideus heard arguments Monday in the lawsuit brought by Sen. Lydia Brasch, of Bancroft, and former Sen. Mark Christensen, of Imperial. Their lawsuit asks the court to declare the proposal "invalid and legally insufficient."
The lawsuit argues that the proposal violates the Nebraska Constitution by including more than one subject: broadening eligibility for the state-federal health care program and asking state officials to seek federal approval of the expansion.
Gale and the Insure the Good Life ballot campaign committee have filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit.
The judge on Monday promised a quick decision in a case.
Nebraska's Republican-dominated Legislature has rejected six previous attempts to expand Medicaid under former President Barack Obama's signature health care law.
Gov. Pete Ricketts and former Gov. Dave Heineman, both Republicans, opposed the expansion, arguing it would divert state money away from other priorities. Ricketts' Democratic challenger, state Sen. Bob Krist, has said he supports the ballot initiative.
The ballot initiative was heavily financed by the Fairness Project, a Washington-based group that played a pivotal role in the 2017 vote to expand Medicaid in Maine. In addition to the Nebraska campaign, the group is working this year on Medicaid expansion ballot measures in Idaho, Montana and Utah.
Fairness Project Executive Director Jonathan Schleifer lauded Friday's news of the petition effort in Nebraska and expressed hope that the lawsuit to stop it would fail.
"We are used to our opponents filing frivolous lawsuits because they know they can't win at the ballot box," Schleifer said. "The secretary of state is right — this lawsuit should be dismissed so that Nebraskans can have their say."
Roughly 11 million people nationally have gotten coverage through the expansion of Medicaid.
The Nebraska measure would require state officials to submit a coverage plan to the federal government to insure certain residents who make less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level — about $16,750 a year. The federal government would then have to approve the plan.