Sacramento — California lawmakers on Tuesday will start debating whether to create the nation's first universal health care system, a key measure of whether the proposal has the support to pass this year.
Progressives have tried for years to create a government-funded universal health care system to replace the one that relies on private insurance. Voters overwhelmingly rejected a 1994 ballot initiative that would have created a universal health care system. Another attempt passed the state Senate in 2017, but it died in the state Assembly with no funding plan attached to it.
This year, Democrats in the state Assembly have filed two bills: one that would create the universal health care system and set its rules, and one that would lay out how to pay for everything by raising taxes on some wealthier individuals and larger businesses.
The first bill is the one getting a hearing on Tuesday before the Assembly Health Committee, where Chair Jim Wood, a Democrat from Santa Rosa, has already said he will vote for it. Because the proposal was introduced last year, it must pass the state Assembly by the end of January to have a chance at becoming law this year.
Universal health care has been debated for decades in the United States, most recently during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary during the campaign of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. But it has never come close to passing in Congress. State lawmakers in Vermont have tried and failed to implement their own universal health care system. And the New York state Legislature has considered a similar plan.
Supporters in California are adopting a divide-and-conquer strategy this year. They hope that separating the idea of a universal health care system from the question of how to pay for it will give them a better chance of getting the bills through and eventually, getting voters to approve it.
"We can debate the policy. If someone says, 'How are we going to pay for it?' Well, those are two different issues now," said Assemblyman Ash Kalra, a Democrat from San Jose and the author of both proposals. "If we can agree on a policy and get that policy passed, then it becomes more real. Then you are actually telling the voters what they are voting for. That's really important."
Opponents, however, are determined to keep the two issues together.
"In the Health Committee, I look forward to a robust discussion on the impacts of socialized medicine in California, including: how much taxes will increase on the middle class," Assembly Republican Leader Marie Waldron said.
The plan for universal health care requires at least a two-thirds vote in both houses of the state Legislature. After that, voters must approve it in a statewide election. Democrats have large majorities, but getting all of them to support the tax increases required to pay for the plan will be difficult. The California Taxpayers Association, which opposes the plan, says it would raise taxes by $163 billion per year on businesses and individuals.
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