Our state lawmakers met this week for a very short but historic special legislative session, addressing issues they will consider again in their next regular session.
The Arkansas Legislature met Monday and Tuesday to vote on measures affecting three issues:
• To avoid a $36.6 million deficit in the public school employees’ health insurance fund.
• To temporarily bar the state lottery from adding monitor games.
• To fund new prison beds.
They wrapped up shortly after midnight in the early hours of Wednesday after approving all three.
On the insurance issue, legislators approved a package of proposals that would, among other things, eliminate coverage for about 4,000 part-time school employees; eliminate coverage for spouses of school employees and state employees if they can obtain coverage 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. Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, chairman of a task force that recommended the proposals, told the Arkansas News Bureau that more will need to be done in next year’s regular session.
Said Sen. Hendren: “We didn’t know what this bill would look like six months ago, so we don’t know what the long-range bill will look like six months from now. Hopefully we will find some changes that give us long-term stability, and that’s what we are going to look for.”
Last week’s action followed a special session in October during which the Legislature infused the school employees’ insurance fund with one-time money.
During debate in the Senate on Tuesday, 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.
“These are just small bandages on gaping wounds,” Tom Dooher, executive director of the Arkansas Education Association, said after the session. “We need to have some thoughtful leadership from the Legislature and the next governor to really come up with a solution that makes sense in the long term and makes this program viable fiscally and viable for people to join.”
On the lottery issue, legislators voted to prohibit the state Lottery Commission from introducing monitor games — where drawings are held every few minutes and results are displayed on monitors at lottery retailers — until March.
To address prison overcrowding, lawmakers approved a measure that would free up about $6.3 million from the state Central Services Fund to fund up to 604 prison beds.
Gov. Mike Beebe on Thursday signed all the special-session bills into law.
We appreciate the efforts of our state lawmakers and their limiting the session to the minimum-required three days, but we hope they will resolve each of these issues at the next regular session instead of handling them with another Band-Aid.
House Speaker-designate Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, told the Arkansas News Bureau he is optimistic about the next session. “It’ll be challenging, but I feel like we’re going to be able to meet those challenges and make the citizens of this state proud,” he said.
Along with teacher insurance, prison overcrowding and lottery games, issues legislators may address in the next session include the so-called private option; allowing public schools to have access to the broadband network that state colleges and universities use; tax cuts; and highway funding. Issues we saw during the 2013 session that could come up again include ones regarding abortion and guns. The regular legislative session opens in January.