LITTLE ROCK — Measures addressing school employees’ health insurance, prison overcrowding and lottery monitor games received House and Senate approval Tuesday, the second day of a special legislative session that was scheduled to wrap up in the early hours Wednesday.
Both chambers approved matching versions of the measures Tuesday afternoon and planned to meet just after midnight to give each other’s bills final approval and send them to the governor on what would be, technically, the third day of the session. The Arkansas Constitution requires the Legislature to take at least three days to approve a bill.
The Senate met at the state Capitol, but because of renovations underway in the House chamber the House met at the Old State House, which last hosted a legislative session in 1909.
Passing with large majorities in each chamber were two bills containing a package of proposals to avoid an expected 35 percent aggregate increase in school employees’ health insurance premiums and a $36.6 million deficit in the school employees’ insurance fund; a bill that would temporarily prohibit lottery monitor games; and a bill to fund up to 604 additional prison beds.
The House sponsor of the insurance proposals, Rep. Harold Copenhaver, D-Jonesboro, vice chairman of a task force that recommended the proposals, told House members that difficult decisions had to be made. He noted that in a special session in October, the Legislature used one-time money to shore up the fund.
“Some people say this is a Band-Aid,” said Copenhaver, vice chairman of the task force that made the recommendations. “Well I say what we did last session was a Band-Aid. We covered it up by providing funding. We have now taken that Band-Aid off, and it’s somewhat painful.”
Some House members objected to provisions that would make part-time school employees ineligible for coverage; make spouses of school and other state employees ineligible if they can obtain insurance through their employers; and transfer to the school employees’ insurance fund an estimated $4.6 million a year that school districts have been saving in federal payroll taxes by contributing to employees’ insurance.
Copenhaver said the districts would save $7.2 million a year by no longer contributing to the insurance of about 4,000 part-time employees, more than making up for the payroll tax savings the districts will lose.
“I do intend to support the other bills the task force has recommended, but this one seems like a shell game to me,” said Rep. John Payton, R-Wilburn.
Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, asked why part-time state employees would not lose their insurance under the plan. Copenhaver said the task force found that part-time state employees’ insurance did not have a significant economic impact.
“It may not mean much to them, but it probably does to some of those public school part-time employees,” Cozart said.
House Bills 1003 and 1004 passed 88-6 and 90-5, respectively.
During debate in the Senate on that chamber’s matching versions of the insurance bills, Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, said he was “frustrated” that the Legislature has to address rising insurance premiums nearly every year but cannot seem to fix the problem.
“I share your frustration,” said Sen. Jim Hendren, the bills’ sponsor and chairman of the task force that recommended the proposals.
Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, said he appreciated the work by Hendren and the task force but noted that more work must be done.
“We have not in any way effectively taken care of the problem long term,” he said.
Senate Bills 3 and 4 passed 29-5 and 25-10, respectively.
Senate Bill 5 by Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, passed 34-1 in the Senate. The bill would prohibit the state lottery from adding fast-paced monitor games, but the prohibition would expire March 13, 2015.
Hickey told senators he wanted to abolish monitor games permanently but agreed to modify his proposal to win support in the House Rules Committee.
“I know I’ll have at least one bill in 2015,” he said.
Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, complimented Hickey for the compromise so lawmakers could look at the issue thoroughly in the next session.
“It was not my intention,” he responded.
The lottery had planned to introduce a monitor game called Quick Draw in September in an effort to boost declining revenue. Hickey has said he does not believe voters had monitor games in mind when they approved a state lottery to fund college scholarships in 2008.
A matching version of Hickey’s proposal, HB 1005 by Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, passed 96-1 in the House.
Matching bills that would free up about $6.3 million from the state Central Services Fund to fund up to 604 prison beds passed with little discussion. HB 1001 passed in 90-1 in the House and SB 1 passed 34-1 in the Senate.
House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, told reporters that although all three issues likely will have to be addressed again in the next regular session, he believed legislators were making important, tough choices.
“I think it’s material, what was done today. I don’t think it’s the end of the story,” he said.
— Reporter Rob Moritz contributed to this report.