With a touch of fanfare, Arkansas lawmakers made quick work of the first day of the 89th General Assembly’s second extraordinary session.
The House of Representatives met in the Old State House Museum, while State Senators remained in their usual confines at the State Capitol. The House is undergoing a massive renovation project and is unusable for official business.
House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, opened the proceedings for an expected three-day special session called by Gov. Mike Beebe to deal with a public school employees insurance crisis, prison overcrowding and lottery restrictions. Carter reminded House members that the Old State House was the place where the Arkansas Constitution was adopted in 1874.
“Let’s continue to make our state proud with the work that we do here in the coming days,” Carter told his fellow legislators, which included Reps. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, and Tommy Thompson, D-Morrilton, who were dressed in 19th century attire.
The House and Senate Insurance and Commerce committees passed measures to deal with the insurance program for teachers and other public school employees. A task force has been working diligently for months — and in a previous special session a few months ago — to craft solutions to an expected $36 million funding shortfall.
The bills that cleared committee would:
• Transfer $4.6 million a year from school district payroll tax savings to health insurance plans;
• Prevent part-time employees and spouses of employees with other health insurance options from participating in the plan;
• Test dependent eligibility; and
• Curtail elective bariatric or gastric-bypass surgeries.
Those bills will be taken up by their respective chambers on Tuesday and should go to companion committees for debate.
Rep. Harold Copenhaver, D-Jonesboro, said in a Talk Business & Politics interview on Sunday (June 29) that the insurance task force would look at private bidders for school district health insurance after the session.
On the prison funding front, the Joint Budget Committee cleared two bills aimed at freeing up $6.3 million for new prison beds. The bills would take a small percentage of money off the top of general revenues currently earmarked for constitutional officers and other expenses. The move would steer the money on an ongoing basis directly to the corrections system for 600 new state prison beds.
The funding is expected to ease prison overcrowding at the state and local level, but lawmakers will still be facing the construction of a new state prison in the 2015 legislative session.
Gov. Mike Beebe (D) also added a provision to the call for this special session to restrict the State Lottery Commission from adding video monitor games, such as keno. Originally, lawmakers planned to completely restrict lottery officials from expanding keno-style games. In a compromise, they agreed to put a moratorium on the lottery commission’s plans until March 13, 2015.
The delay is expected to allow lottery officials, legislators, and other gambling venue representatives to discuss the issue more substantively.
State lawmakers are expected to wrap up the special session on Wednesday.