In its monthly oversight meeting, Arkansas lawmakers obsessed on several hot button topics, including health care, forestry cuts, and post office closures.
Legislators grilled state Insurance Commissioner Jay Bradford on a $3.8 million federal grant that was reviewed earlier this month. The grant money would allow Arkansas to move forward with an aspect of federal health care reform that gives states more jurisdiction over insurance companies’ requests for rate hikes.
Bradford explained to the Arkansas Legislative Council that the grant money would help the state regardless of the fate of federal health care reform.
“This is about disseminating information to the public, giving them information about their insurance rates,” Bradford said. He further explained that a large portion of the grant money would allow his agency to improve internal operations to collect data and review requests for insurance rate increases.
“To me, it’s a consumer issue and it’s to the benefit of the ratepayers,” Bradford added. “It can require a refund of their premium if it’s excessive.”
After nearly 30 minutes of discussion, the Legislative Council approved a report allowing the grant request to go forward.
State legislators also debated future actions related to a controversy surrounding employee layoffs at the Arkansas Forestry Commission.
Earlier this month, Forestry Commission director John Shannon said that 36 employees would be laid off after it was discovered that a funding shortfall left the agency as much as $4 million in the red. The Forestry Commission is largely funded by revenue from the severance tax on the state’s timber industry, which has been hard hit by the depressed housing market.
Shannon had said that he was not fully aware of the agency budget crisis, but that testimony was later contradicted by the Forestry Commission’s former fiscal chief.
Legislators requested a backlog of financial information presented to the General Assembly during the past 5 years as they gear up for a review next week of the agency’s actions.
Sen. Kim Hendren (R-Gravette) said he felt agency executives were right to implement layoffs with the budget shortfall.
“When the money dries up, we need to lay people off,” said Hendren. “I’d rather get rid of employees rather than raise taxes.”
Other lawmakers felt the agency’s actions were unfair. Rep. Bryan King (R-Green Forrest) plans to head the committee meeting next Tuesday that will dig deeper on the reason for the cuts. He said he’s asked Gov. Mike Beebe (D) to stop the layoffs “until we know all the facts.”
Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said the Governor has attempted to meet with King to discuss the situation, but he said there was little Beebe could do at this time to halt the layoffs.
“We cannot order Forestry to spend money they don’t have,” DeCample said. He emphasized that Beebe is committed to finding a long-term solution to resolving the agency’s funding shortfall.
Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View), who has been critical of the agency’s actions, has proposed an interim study of the agency’s budget to find alternatives to keep funding secure in the future. The council approved the interim study.
POST OFFICE CLOSURES
Representatives from the U.S. Postal Service also appeared before the Legislative Council to explain potential closures of Arkansas post offices.
Lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle hammered postal officials on the lack of openness about the closure process.
The USPS recently announced plans to close more than 3,600 post offices nationwide, many of which are in rural parts of the country. Arkansas could lose as many as 211 local post offices as part of the downsizing plan.
The postmaster general has delayed any future closures until May 15, according to testimony provided today.