guest commentary from the office of Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe
I have called the Arkansas General Assembly to Little Rock for an extraordinary session, often referred to as a special session. There are legislative issues to be addressed before the next regular assembly convenes in January.
But before I issued this call, I wanted legislators to be certain that a special session would be completed in three days. Three days is the shortest time that bills can progress through both the House and Senate. Since these sessions take place at taxpayer expense, my goal is always for them to be as efficient and inexpensive as possible.
The overcrowding of our county jails continues to be a major problem for our criminal-justice system and our communities. A new emphasis on parole revocations last fall caused our inmate population to increase quite rapidly. Currently, we have more than 2,500 inmates backed up in county jails waiting for beds to become available in State facilities. This hampers the ability of local police and sheriffs' departments to lock up criminals arrested in their cities and counties. Over time, we believe this overcrowding will level off.
However, it's clear that we need to take action sooner rather than later to reduce this backlog of prisoners. We’ve identified $6.3 million in our Central Services Fund that can be re-directed to the Department of Correction. This money will allow the opening of about 600 beds in DOC prisons and the Pulaski County Jail.
We are always reticent to tap funds from Central Services, as it pays for the primary functions of State government. But, in this one instance, adjustments made a few years ago have left enough cushion to permit moving some money for opening jail beds without endangering the stability of the Central Services Fund. Making 600 beds available will not solve the entire overcrowding dilemma, but it should alleviate some of the pressure currently being felt by our county sheriffs.
Last October, I called a special session so that the General Assembly could address the funding needs of the insurance program covering our public-school employees. With enrollees facing a 50-percent rate increase, more State funds were infused into the program, dropping that increase to a more manageable 10 percent. As part of that session, the legislature also created a task force to consider potential insurance policy changes for both public-school employees and State employees. The conclusions reached by that task force also have sufficient support to pass both houses during the special session. So I have also added those bills to the call.
Finally, legislators asked to include a bill to prevent the Arkansas Lottery Commission from adding electronic monitor games to the lottery system. Again, when supplied with evidence of sufficient legislative support, I agreed to add it to the agenda.
In our State, where regular sessions occur only every two years, special sessions become necessary at times to conduct the business of the people by their elected representatives. As my time as governor winds down, I trust that these sessions will continue to be short, productive and of minimal expense to Arkansas taxpayers.