JEFFERSON CITY — The state Senate approved legislation Tuesday that could give Missouri residents a chance to vote on the federal health insurance mandate.
Senators passed a bill 26-8 that would put the issue to a statewide vote in August. But it would do so as a proposed state law, not an amendment to the state constitution as originally sought by some Republican lawmakers.
The bill still needs final House approval to appear on the ballot. Because it is a legislative referendum, it doesn't need Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's signature.
The federal health care law signed by President Barack Obama in February requires almost all Americans to acquire health insurance or face a fine. There is an exemption for low-income people.
Missouri's proposed referendum would prohibit the federal government from compelling people or employers to buy health insurance. But it may be largely symbolic because federal laws generally trump state laws.
The House previously passed a proposed constitutional amendment prohibiting government penalties against Missourians who pay directly for their own health care instead of participating in an insurance plan. That measure has stalled in a Senate committee.
Senate Democrats blocked that chamber's proposed constitutional amendment on health care when it came up in March.
Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said Monday that some senators feared the long-term effect of amending the constitution.
"A lot of times it has unintended consequences," Engler said. "There's still a resistance to put this in the constitution, to say that we'll never do anything with federal health care."
Sponsoring Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, announced a compromise measure changing state law instead of a constitutional amendment Tuesday while speaking to about 100 conservative activists rallying at the Capitol in support of a referendum against the federal health insurance mandate.
After holding what they billed as a "rolling tea party" in which they honked and circled the Capitol in their vehicles for a half hour, supporters filled the Senate viewing gallery to watch lawmakers. But the Senate did not vote until many attendees had left.
Supporters of the ballot proposal described the federal health care legislation as a major intrusion into Americans' rights.
"Whether it's health care or red-light cameras or our First Amendment rights or Second Amendment rights, I will not stand and give up one ounce of your liberty," Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis, said at the Capitol rally.
Sen. Rita Days, D-St. Louis, said senators like Lembke failed to mention that the federal law had made it easier for more people to get health insurance.
"I am disturbed about this legislation," Days said. "The whole point of the (federal) legislation is to make sure everyone can afford to get a health care policy that takes care of their needs."
Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, said Missourians don't need their state lawmakers to send a message to Congress because voters can send their own message during elections. Justus said the Senate should be focusing on jobs.
The referendum also includes a provision allowing certain insurance companies to voluntarily dissolve.