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Appeals Court to Rule on Ballot Effort

Times Staff Writer

A state appellate court agreed Tuesday to accept a controversial ballot challenge to the new state law that requires employers to buy health insurance for uninsured workers, but set a hearing for long after printing of the ballots is scheduled to start.

In an odd development, opponents and advocates of the proposed referendum claimed the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco had handed them a victory.

Organized labor and physicians, who support the law, said the effect of the court’s action will be to keep the issue off the March 2 ballot. But major employers and restaurant operators read the decision the opposite way and called it a “positive step” in getting the issue before the voters in March.

The court directed both sides to submit briefed arguments on Jan. 2 and scheduled oral arguments for Jan. 15. In doing so, the court refused to stay the printing of ballots and voter pamphlets, which the counties will start Dec. 26.

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Those materials will not contain the referendum question. The first batch will be sent Jan. 2 to military personnel and other California voters overseas.

The referendum, backed by the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Restaurant Assn., would ask voters to overturn the law passed last summer that requires major employers to begin providing health insurance for uninsured workers starting in 2006.

Employers have said the requirement would hand them a $7-billion burden that they cannot afford. Proponents of the law dismiss such claims as inflated nonsense and argue that the time has come to provide health benefits to about 1 million low-paid workers who are uninsured.

The chamber and restaurant operators gathered more than 620,000 signatures to put the referendum on the March ballot, but a Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled earlier this month that the title and summary of the measure’s contents were misleading and inaccurate.

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The plaintiffs appealed to the 3rd District Court of Appeal, whose justices last week disqualified themselves from hearing the case on grounds that they could be perceived as being biased.

The judges stepped aside en masse because a former colleague who had returned to private practice had signed the appeal brief.

A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Kevin Shelley declined to discuss the potential consequences of the court’s action on Tuesday. But she noted that the hearing date had been set for Jan. 15, three weeks after printing started on the ballots and two weeks after the first ballots are scheduled to be sent overseas.


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