Beebe seeks consensus on teacher insurance, prison funding

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 59 views 

Gov. Mike Beebe said Thursday (June 19) he’s not calling a special session on changes to the public school employee insurance program until he sees a roll call from each chamber of the legislature with a big majority in both.

The Governor also said he wants to deal with the prison overcrowding situation in a special session and he’s open to a provision to restrict lottery games, but beyond that he does not anticipate adding to a special session agenda.

In a Talk Business & Politics interview on Thursday morning, Beebe said he still wasn’t sure if he would call a special session on the insurance issue.

“We don’t know yet,” he said. “If the bill we’ve already seen and that theoretically is being circulated among the members of the General Assembly is the bill, then I will support that bill and will call a (special) session if I get a roll call from each house that suggests that there is significantly over the majority needed to be able to pass it.”

Beebe said he has heard from lawmakers who are troubled by the potential solution to the teacher insurance crisis, which includes eliminating part-time employees from the plan as well as spouses who have other insurance options. Also, lawmakers are talking about earmarking a portion of state funding that goes to general education needs specifically to paying for insurance premiums.

“I think feedback that I’ve gotten is there is some disagreement among members of the General Assembly,” Beebe said. “I think there is opposition to taking part-time [employees] off. And I think there is some opposition to re-directing some of that FICA saving money, that’s theoretically going to be generated, away from the public schools generally and into insurance payments.

Beebe is open to adding other items to his call for a special session, if it materializes.

“If we’re going to have a session then we’re going to have to address the problems our counties are having in county jails and our prison back-up,” he said.

County officials are housing a backlog of state inmates, which is putting a strain on local resources. There is also a funding shortfall that is preventing the state from access some existing prison beds, but Beebe said there is a way to free up $6.3 million to resolve the problem.

“That $6.3 million will get you 600 beds in existing areas,” he said. “It could reduce that backlog.”

Beebe said he is also open to adding the issue of a potential lottery restriction to a special session’s call. State lottery officials have expressed interest in adding monitor games as way to boost sagging lottery revenue; however, some lawmakers are worried it will lead to more addictive gambling behavior and they want to enact legislation to restrict the new game’s introduction.

“I will include the lottery restriction on the call for a special session if the consensus is there in both chambers,” Beebe said.

Beebe said he did not foresee a possible call item to include changing a state law allowing more access to the state’s ARE-ON network, which offers super high-speed bandwidth and is restricted to research universities and medical networks.

State education officials and some members of a task force studying broadband access for K-12 schools have advocated for allowing the schools to tie into the ARE-ON network. Broadband providers have expressed skepticism on the costs and need for the move in certain areas of the state.

Beebe, who supports a law change to allow for more ARE-ON access, said the broadband law needs to be addressed, but he doesn’t think the legislature has had enough discussion on the subject to add it to his special session call.

“That’s not ripe. The legislature is not ready to address that,” he said. “There hasn’t been enough discussion about it. There’s still a lot of stuff that needs to be worked out. They’ll probably have to deal with that later.”

Also of interest, if a special session is called, the Arkansas House of Representatives is undergoing a massive renovation in its main chamber. The House would have to meet in other quarters. Sources say the Big Mac building and the Old State House are two venues being considered.