Court invalidates signatures for Ohio drug-price proposal

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Backers of a proposal aimed at controlling prescription drug prices must collect more signatures from voters as part their effort to get the issue on Ohio ballots next year, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled.

The decision is a setback for the Drug Price Relief Act's supporters, who include the California-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Their proposal aims to keep state entities from buying drugs at prices higher than the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays.

In Monday's ruling , the high court said election officials erroneously counted 10,303 signatures submitted last year.

Without those names, the proposal is short 5,044 valid signatures, the court found.

The court said Monday if the backers get the make-up signatures, their plan must return again to the General Assembly for consideration.

Supporters will contest that step, said Michael Weinstein, president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which has offices in Ohio.

"There are a lot of ambiguities in the decision, and we're not quite clear of all the repercussions," Weinstein said in a Tuesday interview.

The ruling comes as backers are wrapping up a second round of signatures to get the initiative on Ohio ballots. Those will be turned in as planned later this month, said attorney Don McTigue. He said the AIDS Healthcare Foundation had spent more than $900,000 in gathering this round of signers.

McTigue said supporters plan to sue to recover signatures they say were erroneously rejected in January. Should they succeed, that could make the initiative's return to the Legislature moot.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and other opponents of the proposal had challenged the plan's signature petitions in the state's high court. The pharmaceutical group alleged the paperwork contained flaws, such as false addresses from petition circulators and improper signature counting.

A majority of justices on the seven-member court agreed with some of the opponents' claims.

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor said some signatures should be invalidated, but thought the majority went too far in tossing those due to over counting, a practice in which petition circulators attest to a higher number of signatures than what appears on each petition paper.

"Going forward, the majority's decision to strike valid signatures in this case based on 'overcounting,' with no showing of fraud, will have unintended consequences for every prospective candidate for any elected office in Ohio," she wrote.

O'Connor also said the state's elections chief should not be required to return the initiative to the General Assembly.

Justice Paul Pfeifer dissented in the case, saying the court lacks jurisdiction.

"This court has taken on the wrong job and has done the job wrong, to the long-term detriment of Ohio election law," he wrote.

Justice Judith French, agreed with the majority, but wrote separately to raise concerns about the state's "unworkable timeline" for such a proposed law initiated by citizens. French said the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission and state lawmakers should address the issue.

"The system is broken and calls for modern amendments to fix it," she wrote.

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