Posted 9/30/2013 07:45 am
Updated 7 months ago
LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe and lawmakers agree that they need to fix the state's teacher insurance system before rate hikes of up to 50 percent hit next year. Turning that consensus into a plan they can pass during a special session is another matter.
Though Beebe seems to be moving closer to call lawmakers back to the Capitol in the coming weeks, the agreement he says is required first on both the short and long-term solutions needed for the state's teacher insurance program are far from a certainty.
The situation Beebe faces is not that different than 2008, when he called a special session to consider raising the severance tax on natural gas to pay for road improvements. Then, as now, the session was preceded by a series of closed-door meeting between Beebe and other groups as he tried to build support for a plan.
But instead of trying to build support with natural gas executives, Beebe's now trying to win over teachers, superintendents and lawmakers on a plan that he says will require some pain and sacrifice from everybody. And instead of the threat of a ballot measure, such as the one he could point to in 2008 that would have led to an even higher tax increase, Beebe can point to the Jan. 1 increase in rates as a motivator in trying to come together.
"Whatever solution is going to hurt somebody and probably all of us in equal shares in terms of costing money or sacrifice or all the above," Beebe told reporters last week.
Beebe's announcement that the signup for the teacher insurance program would be delayed a month, with open enrollment moved from Oct. 1 to Nov. 1, was a signal that he believes lawmakers are on their way toward a plan to address the premium increases. Legislative leaders have also said they want to have drafts of bills that they can begin shopping to members of the House and Senate by the end of this week.
The ideas Beebe and lawmakers are eyeing include changes in the teacher insurance program to cut down on its costs, one-time money to at least lower the premium hikes expected to hit in January and ongoing additional funding from the state, districts or a combination of both for future years.
Agreement on the short-term fix is the easiest of the three tasks, lawmakers say, with many willing to tap into the state's surplus to alleviate the hikes coming next year. State officials have said an additional $53 million would be needed to keep the premium rates at their current levels.
"The big question is where do we find the money on a per year basis to keep this situation from occurring again?" said Rep. James McLean, D-Batesville, chairman of the House Education Committee. "That's where the real hard negotiating is going to have to happen."
Ideas being floated have included transferring funds that schools receive for the number of students on the school lunch program and requiring more of a contribution from school districts into the teacher insurance system. Teachers are offered insurance on separate plans from state employees. The health insurance plans offered to state employees are identical, but have lower premiums because the state contributes more money for each budgeted position.
The toughest task for lawmakers will be the structural changes that they say need to be made to the teacher insurance program. Sen. Johnny Key, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, compared the challenge of trying to balance the need to make the system sustainable while keeping it affordable for teachers to the challenge national policymakers face when it comes to health care.
"Where is that balance? We're trying to tackle it for a segment of employees within our state," said Key, R-Mountain Home. "The whole national debate for years is where is that balance and now we find ourselves right in the middle of it for school employees."