Lawmakers finish insurance, prisons and lottery special session

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 114 views 

32 hours. Three calendar days. Two locations. One special session. Arkansas lawmakers wrapped up a short special session passing bills to address a public school employee insurance crisis, prison overcrowding and lottery restrictions.

After convening at 4 p.m. on Monday (June 30), state legislators finished their extraordinary session business just past midnight on Wednesday (July 2). The three calendar day session met a threshold requirement for a special session call and provided efficiency for quick passage to several agreed-upon measures.

"The efficiency of the session was created by the work everyone did in advance of the session. We essentially had a virtual session before the session," said Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, who will serve as Senate President Pro Tempore in the 2015 regular session.

While the State Senate met in its usual capitol chamber, the Arkansas House met at the Old State House Museum, the former state capitol. The House chamber is undergoing a massive renovation and was unusable for session business. The historic background was appreciated by House members, but several said they would be just fine returning to their normal place of business next January.

"The first five minutes was pretty cool, understanding the history of it," said Rep. Joe Jett, D-Success. "After that, the realization of the hard chairs, the room being hot, then trying to get parking on Markham Street and being late for meetings – I've decided state representatives are a little spoiled."

To shore up an expected $36 million shortfall in the teachers insurance fund, legislators passed measures crafted by a task force that has been studying the issue for months. The bills included:
• Transferring $4.6 million a year from school district payroll tax savings to health insurance plans;
• Preventing part-time employees and spouses of employees with other health insurance options from participating in the plan;
• Testing dependent eligibility; and
• Curtailing elective bariatric or gastric-bypass surgeries.

Lawmakers are also planning to ask for private bids on the public school employee insurance fund after claiming that the embattled plan still is financially troubled. Teachers and public school employees will see some plans rise by a significant percentage, while others may fall.

Legislators also freed up $6.3 million for 600 new prison beds to deal with jail overcrowding at the state and local levels.

A compromise was struck on plans to restrict the state lottery's expansion into video monitor games. 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.

Gov. Mike Beebe (D) is expected to sign all of the bills into law.