PHOENIX - Supporters of Medicaid expansion have spent more than $150,000 in a bid to block a referendum that would delay, and possibly kill, the plan lawmakers approved this year.
New campaign finance reports show the Arizona Business Coalition, run by the state Chamber of Commerce, has kicked in $50,000. The same group also has spent another $57,500 on its own to fight the ballot measure.
The Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association contributed another $50,000.
Jaime Molera, who is coordinating the anti-referendum drive, said Tuesday that some of the money is being spent to hire paid circulators to gather signatures on a counterpetition, expressing support for expansion.
Referendum supporters "are very vocal, they're very animated," he said. "But at the end of the day they're a fringe, extreme minority."
But Frank Antenori, a leader of the referendum, said the move by Molera's group is little more than an attempt to confuse people and prevent the foes of Medicaid expansion from getting the 86,405 valid signatures they need before Sept. 12.
If they get those signatures, it would put the issue on the 2014 ballot and, more immediately, would block the Medicaid expansion plan approved by the Legislature from taking effect as scheduled on Jan. 1.
Antenori pointed out -and Molera conceded - the counterpetitions actually have no legal force or effect. Antenori contends circulators of the other petition drive are deceiving signers about what the petition does, which he said leads some people to believe they cannot sign the referendum petition because they've already signed one.
Molera denied there is any effort to deceive.
The legislation adds about 300,000 people to the rolls of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state's Medicaid program. Expansion qualifies the state for an additional $1.6 billion in federal funds, which would be matched by a $240 million assessment on hospitals.
Foes are using a constitutional provision that allows voters who gather enough signatures to force a public vote on legislation.
Gov. Jan Brewer and Molera contend the issue is exempt from being referred to the ballot because it deals with state funding. Molera said Tuesday some of the money raised is going to hire lawyers for the upcoming legal fight should expansion foes gather enough signatures.
But Arizonans for Sensible Health Care Policy, who back expansion, are also paying people to gather signatures on their own petitions.
"They're out there trying to deliberately undermine our efforts," Antenori said. He contends people are being told the petitions are about the Medicaid referendum, but don't know that the forms are not the referendum itself.
Molera said there's nothing misleading about the petition efforts. He said his circulators are told to tell people "this is in support of what the Legislature and Gov. Brewer did to restore Medicaid in Arizona."
Legally, it does not matter how many signatures Molera's group gets, as the petition is little more than an expression of support.
Molera said, though, the petitions do have a purpose.
"You have folks saying Arizonans didn't want this" Medicaid expansion, he said. "What we're saying is, if people have an opportunity to sign petitions, they want to sign something in support, and show public support, of an effort we think has huge approval."
There's also a political purpose behind the petitions.
Antenori said the decision by a handful of Republican legislators to side with Democrats for Medicaid expansion has aroused the ire of GOP rank and file. He said those Republicans will do all they can to ensure those five senators and nine representatives do not get re-elected next year.
Molera said getting a lot of signatures on pro-expansion petitions is designed to send a different message to the lawmakers who went along.
"I think there's a heck of a case to be made that there's a huge amount of supporters, Republicans, independents, that want to see this happen," Molera said.
"You have folks saying Arizonans didn't want this" Medicaid expansion. "What we're saying is, if people have an opportunity to sign petitions, they want to sign something in support, and show public support, of an effort we think has huge approval."
Jaime Molera, coordinating the anti-referendum drive