Arkansas Senate Panel Advances Keno Moratorium

by Associated Press  on Tuesday, Jul. 1, 2014 9:40 am  

LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Legislature was poised Tuesday to take its first votes on proposals to address rising teacher health insurance premiums, prison overcrowding and new lottery restrictions as lawmakers aimed to quickly wrap up a special session called to address the three issues.

A Senate committee endorsed a proposal to bar the state lottery from launching monitor games such as keno until next spring, clearing the way for both chambers of the Legislature to consider the moratorium Tuesday afternoon. The proposal is a compromise that eases an original plan to outright bar the games.

"It guarantees we will bring this back up in the regular session," Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, told members of the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Before the compromise, the lottery proposal had been the biggest unknown surrounding the session. Senate leaders had been pushing for the ban, but House Speaker Davy Carter had said he believed it should be addressed during the regular session.

The Arkansas Lottery Commission has approved the start of keno, a bingo-style game that would have draws every six minutes, which players would track on monitors. The lottery projected it would sell $12.5 million worth of tickets for the monitor games, which would create $3.8 million in revenue for college scholarships.

Lottery Director Bishop Woosley said he planned to meet with lawmakers to explain to them why lottery officials want to start the games.

"It is my job to try and find new sources of revenue. That's what I have to do," Woosley told reporters.

Legislative leaders say there are more than enough votes to pass the lottery measure, as well as proposals aimed at averting hikes in teacher health insurance premiums and to ease prison overcrowding.

Identical proposals before the House and Senate Tuesday would prevent a 35 percent premium increase thousands of public school employees would otherwise see this fall by removing part-time workers and some spouses from the program. The legislation would also transfer an expected $4.6 million in tax savings from the districts to the teacher insurance program.

Both chambers also planned to consider legislation to transfer $6.2 million in state funds to pay for 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.

Legislative leaders hoped to wrap up the session early Wednesday morning.

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