Beebe: Senate short of votes to pass teacher insurance package

LITTLE ROCK — Legislative leaders were a couple of Senate votes shy of a consensus on a plan to avert a steep increase in health insurance rates for teachers and other public school employees, Gov. Mike Beebe said Tuesday.

Lawmakers were meeting behind closed doors to nail down House and Senate majorities for a comprehensive proposal that emerged late last week to use $43 million from the state surplus to avoid a 50 percent rise in health insurance rates set to go into effect Jan. 1. Another $36 million a year would hold down future increases.

In the midst of those efforts, Beebe said House leaders had secured 77 votes, two in excess of the 75 needed for a three-fourths majority to pass the proposal, but Senate leaders still needed another two votes to reach 27 votes in that chamber.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, said Senate leaders were making calls to alley the concerns of resistant colleagues and hoped to announce a consensus Wednesday.

“We have a sufficient number of folks who are kind of in the unsure column in regards to the appropriation in particular, so we’re just trying to reach out and make sure we understand what their concerns are and see if there’s a way we can get those reconciled before the morning,” Dismang said.

He said a a consensus on whether to move forward with a special session must be reached no later than Wednesday because the state Employee Benefits Division has to be able to print new materials and notify teachers about changes in rates and plan options for next year.

“I think at some point (Wednesday) morning we need to have an idea if we’re going to have a special session or not,” Dismang said.

Holdouts were “hearing all kinds of things from all kinds of different folks,” the governor said.

“You’ve got some folks calling and saying that’s too much, don’t be spending that much money. You’ve got some folks saying we want more of a permanent change before we vote that much money,” he said. “The problem with that is, you don’t have much time for that.”

Beebe told reporters Tuesday that if he is convinced there is a consensus among lawmakers, he could call a special session for anytime that fits everyone’s schedule.

“It doesn’t have to be before Nov. 1,” he said. “The problem is, most people want it right away and get it over with. You’ve got people scattering to the winds, people planning on being out-of-pocket next week and the week after, and so the consensus is most folks want to do it right away.

“Now I’m going to be here all the time, so it makes no difference to me as long as they can get it done before” teachers have to start signing up, he said.

Earlier this month, officials pushed back the enrollment period for employees covered by the health insurance plan from Oct. 1 to Nov. 1. The health insurance system told the governor it needed some direction by Tuesday so that it could begin preparing material for the sign-up period. The board met Tuesday and voted to begin the process of printing up materials based on the proposal now being considered by lawmakers.

If that should change, Beebe said, then the EBD could return to its original proposal that included health insurance rate increases as high as 50 percent.

Legislative leaders were confident that the plan they developed would meet Beebe’s requirement for a solution to shore up the insurance system now and into the future before he would call a special session to address the problem.

Under the proposal that legislative leaders circulated Friday, the state would use $43 million from a budget surplus to limit the increase in premiums to 10 percent in January.

A long-term solution would direct $36 million annually to the school employees’ health insurance plans, including $10 million from general revenue, $16 million from the school facilities program and $10 million from state funding for professional development.

About $18 million also would be passed on to school employees in the form of premiums, though that amount could be reduced as a result of reforms to be recommended by a task force that would review the entire system.