Special legislative session begins


LITTLE ROCK — State lawmakers began a special session Monday with a nod to the state’s past and then quickly got down to the business of addressing rising teacher health insurance costs, prison overcrowding and lottery monitor games.

Gov. Mike Beebe called the special session after assured him there would be enough votes to pass proposals on each issue. Legislative leaders have said they expect the session to wrap up Wednesday.

While the Senate met in its regular chamber at the state Capitol, the House met at the Old State House because of renovations underway in the House chamber. The meeting in the Old State House was the first in the historic landmark since 1909.

House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, during a speech on the House floor, noted that the representatives were convening in the same building where Arkansas’ constitution was signed. He also said it is the oldest state capitol building west of the Mississippi River.

“Let’s continue to make our state proud with the work that we do here in the coming days,” Carter told members.

Rep. Jim Nickels, D-Sherwood, told House members his wife is a descendant of the first House speaker, Rep. John Wilson, who in 1837 fought with Rep. J.J. Anthony after heated debate. The two dueled with knives, and Wilson killed Anthony.

Wilson later was charged with murder but acquitted on grounds of self-defense, Nickels said.

Before the House went into session, Reps. Tommy Thompson, D-Morrilton, and Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, were seen walking around the Old State House dressed in 1800s-style clothing.

Thompson was wearing a black top hat and black jacket with tails. He said the outfit was his wife’s idea and that they found the clothes at a costume shop in Conway.

“She asked for 1860-1870 dress that would be appropriate for this occasion and this is what they came up with, and I am so glad to wear it,” he said. “It’s a very special meaning to me to serve in the Legislature.”

Fite said a friend in the Fort Smith area who is active in history re-enacting provided her with a dress and hat.

Just before the House went into session, several lawmakers arrived by horse-drawn carriage. They said they rode the carriage just a few blocks to commemorate the historic day.

In committee action Monday, the House and Senate insurance and commerce committees advanced a package of measures seeking to avoid a 35 percent increase in insurance premiums that thousands of teachers and public school employees are estimated to face this fall.

The proposals include transferring about $4.6 million a year from school districts’ payroll tax savings to the health insurance plans covering about 47,000 teachers and other public schools employees; making part-time school employees ineligible for coverage; making spouses of school employees and other state employees ineligible for coverage if they can obtain insurance through their employers; requiring verification of dependents’ eligibility; requiring employees in high-deductible plans to enroll in health savings accounts; and limiting coverage for weight-reduction surgery.

The package contains recommendations from a task force formed to study the public school employees’ insurance program.

“While these changes are hard, I want you to keep in mind that the alternative is worse,” said Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, chairman of the task force.

Hendren said the changes would mean the addition of a $1,000 deductible in the gold plan. Those on the bronze plan would see their premiums rise from $11 to $60 a month, he said.

The Senate will consider Senate bills 3 and 4 on Tuesday. House Bills and 1003 and 1004 head to the House.

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, voted against SB 4 because it would make part-time school employees ineligible but would not do the same for part-time state employees. She noted that state legislators are considered part-time.

Some members of the House insurance panel voted against HB 1004, which includes the proposal to transfer school districts’ payroll tax savings to the insurance program.

“I don’t think it’s a complete fix. They’re going to have to come back and probably ask for more money later,” Rep Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville, told reporters after voting against HB 1004.

Perry, an insurance agent, said he would prefer to allow school districts to choose their own insurance plans.

Rep. Harold Copenhaver, D-Jonesboro, the sponsor of HB 1003 and HB 1004 and vice chairman of the task force on teacher insurance, told reporters, “This is the first step to correcting a situation that is not working for the state of Arkansas. I agree with (Perry): It’s not a complete fix, but we have taken the Band-Aid off, and it stings. It is not a dump-in of funding. We have to move it in the right direction to get us into the black so we have other opportunities for these employees in the future.”

The House Rules Committee endorsed HB 1005, which would prohibit the lottery from introducing monitor games. The prohibition would expire March 13, allowing the Legislature to decide in the next regular session whether to continue the ban. An identical Senate bill, SB 5, is expected to be considered by the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs on Tuesday.

The Joint Budget Committee advanced SB 1 and HB 1001, identical bills that would free up about $6.3 million from the state Central Services Fund to fund up to 604 additional prison beds.

Shea Wilson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Correction, said later the money is needed to help ease prison overcrowding.

”The proposal is to open 354 existing beds, plus for us to operate 250 beds that Pulaski County has that we will operate to help them alleviate overcrowding,” she said.

She said the 354 state prison beds will be divided between several different facilities, including the Northwest Arkansas Work Release Center, the old training academy at the Tucker Unit, the McPherson Unit and the Ouachita River Correctional Unit.

The identical bills are to be on the House and Senate agendas Tuesday.

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Arkansas News Bureau reporter John Lyon contributed to this report.