Lawmakers Told Special Session Set for Next Week

by Andrew DeMillo, The Associated Press  on Tuesday, Jun. 24, 2014 10:21 am  

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas legislative leaders told House and Senate members Monday they'll be called back to the Capitol next week to address rising teacher health insurance premiums and prison overcrowding, though Gov. Mike Beebe's office said he wasn't ready to confirm his plans for a special session.

Officials with the House and Senate told lawmakers via email that the special session will begin June 30 and run through July 2. Senate President Michael Lamoureux and House Chief of Staff Gabe Holmstrom said they had confirmed the dates with Beebe's office. A spokesman for Beebe said he wasn't ready to confirm that he'll call a special session.

"I'm not going to announce a call before we've got a call," Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said.

Beebe earlier Monday told reporters he believed odds were "pretty good" that he would call the Legislature back into session after receiving assurances there were more than enough votes to pass measures addressing the insurance premium hikes and prison overcrowding.

The session is expected to focus primarily on measures aimed at averting a 35 percent premium increase set to hit 47,000 public school employees this fall. The proposals being considered include dropping part-time employees from plans and excluding spouses from coverage if they can receive insurance from their own work. Dropping the part-time employees would allow the state to transfer $4.6 million in tax savings school districts are expected to see back to the insurance program.

The shortfall is blamed on an increasingly expensive insurance program, with many employees participating in generous plans that feature no deductibles. The Legislature last year required the plans include a deductible starting in 2015, as part of a series of measures aimed at overhauling the program.

"That system has always been plagued with high utilization, high cost but low participation in terms of the number of people involved," Beebe said.

The session is also expected to include legislation that would free up $6.3 million in the budget to fund up to 600 additional prison beds. Law enforcement officials from around the state have asked for the additional funding to ease prison overcrowding. Arkansas' inmate population has risen since the state enacted stricter probation and parole policies last year. Many state inmates are being held at county jails as they await state prison beds.

Beebe said the insurance and prison measures have the support of more than 60 percent of the House and Senate members.

It was unclear whether the session would include an effort to prevent the state lottery from adding monitor games such as keno. Senate leaders have said there's enough support in that chamber for the move, but House leaders have said they don't believe there's enough backing among their members to take it up in a special session.

Speaker Davy Carter said renovations to the House chamber means representatives will instead meet at the Old State House, which had served as the state Capitol until 1911. Holmstrom said the Legislature has only met three times in the building — which currently serves as a museum — since then, with the most recent meeting in 1983.

"It's just going to bring a lot of attention to the Old State House and that's good for the state," Carter said.

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