Quick Legislative Session Sets Stage for Future Fights (AP Analysis)

by Andrew DeMillo, The Associated Press  on Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013 9:24 am  

Possible changes to the state's teacher insurance program "will be an issue the General Assembly will have to deal with for years to come," House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, says.

LITTLE ROCK — It took a little more than 33 hours for Arkansas lawmakers to breeze through a marathon special session called to address rising teacher health insurance rates. But the ongoing fights from the session may linger for years.

From efforts to overhaul the teacher insurance program after legislators boosted its funding to potential challenges stemming from the failed effort to redistribute excess property tax revenues from some school districts, lawmakers face plenty of unanswered questions.

The most immediate question regards what changes are needed to the teacher insurance program to avoid future bailouts from the Legislature, which tapped $43 million in surplus funds this year and will redirect other state money in future years to alleviate premium increases that otherwise would have risen by as much as 50 percent.

The moves by the Legislature are expected to lower the rate increases to 10 percent, but it also sets the stage for longer-term reforms.

"This will be an issue the General Assembly will have to deal with for years to come," House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, said.

One of the first changes will come next month, when the terms for members of the board that oversees the teacher insurance program will end and new members appointed through one of the proposals Gov. Mike Beebe plans to sign into law. The move was a direct challenge to the board, which the legislation said had "failed to fulfill their mission and provide a stable and actuarially sound system of health insurance benefits for public school employees."

The more substantial reforms, however, will likely come from a task force created to come up with long-term solutions on how to make the insurance program more sustainable and avoid crises like the one that prompted last week's session.

"It gives us time to take care of these teachers and school employees, find out what the problem is and how we need to fix it," said Rep. Tommy Wren, D-Melbourne, who chairs the House Insurance and Commerce Committee.

The consequences of the property tax measure's failure may be the biggest unknown from the session. Aimed at addressing a state Supreme Court ruling that Beebe and other state officials said threw Arkansas' school funding reforms into question, the proposal would have allowed the state to retain excess property tax revenue from districts where higher property tax collections pushed the districts' total school funding levels above those set by state law.

It also would have phased out the excess revenue from eight districts where collections are currently above that funding level.

The proposal was indirectly related to the teacher insurance premiums, with the excess money to be used to make up for some of the state facilities fund that was being tapped to alleviate the rate hikes.

But the property tax issue quickly overshadowed the primary reason for the session, with shades of the divisions that the Legislature saw during the long-running school funding fights that brought them back for special sessions over the past two decades.



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