NU Online News Service, Dec. 15, 2003, 1:30 p.m. EST – A judge in a Sacramento County, Calif., state court has issued a writ that could block opponents of the state’s “universal health” law from putting a referendum against the law on California’s March 2004 ballot.[@@]

The coalition organizing the referendum, Californians Against Government Run Healthcare, Sacramento, Calif., has vowed to appeal the ruling to a California appeals court immediately.

The coalition is fighting a law created by Senate Bill 2 that will require employers with 200 workers or more to provide employee health coverage by 2006 or pay the state to provide coverage. Eventually, the law also could require employers with 20 to 199 workers to provide health coverage. Supporters call the law a “universal health law” or the “pay or play” law, but the coalition fighting the law is calling it a “new $7 billion health care tax.”

The coalition contends that it needs only 373,816 valid voter signatures to get the anti-S.B. 2 referendum on the ballot and that it already has collected more than 600,000 valid signatures supporting the referendum.

Two state lawmakers who support the bill, Sen. John Burton, San Francisco, and Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, Calif., have filed a suit challenging the official “title and summary” of the referendum released by the attorney general’s office because it says S.B. 2 mandates insurance coverage for businesses which employ 20 or more workers. S.B. 2 cannot apply to employers with fewer than 200 employees until state lawmakers enact other legislation, the S.B. 2 supporters argue.

The suit also objects to the petition used to obtain the signatures.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly has responded to the suit by issuing a writ of mandamus prohibiting the secretary of state from certifying the referendum petitions.

The S.B. 2 opponents say S.B. 2, as written, will affect employers with 20 employees once it is fully implemented.

S.B. 2 opponents also attack supporters’ efforts to use technical considerations to invalidate the petition signatures.

Even if the referendum fails, law opponents hope to challenge the law in the court on the ground that it violates the provision of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 that preempts state regulation of employee benefits.

Some opponents also hope to challenge the law on the ground that the new law is a tax and that lawmakers violated the state constitution by failing to treat S.B. 2 as a tax bill.