Arkansas Lawmakers Consider Plans to Shore Up Teacher Insurance

LITTLE ROCK - Teacher insurance premiums would increase by only 10 percent by the state tapping $43 million of surplus money this year and redirecting existing state funds in subsequent years under a plan distributed to the House and Senate on Friday.

The chairmen of the House and Senate education committees said they're now gauging support for the proposals to see if there are enough votes for passage during a potential special session to address the teacher insurance premiums. Gov. Mike Beebe has said he won't call lawmakers back to the Capitol unless there's consensus on how to alleviate the hikes and overhaul the system.

"This is the proposal we're going to go with and we're going to take to the House members," Rep. James McLean, D-Batesville, who chairs the House Education Committee.

State officials have said an additional $54 million is needed to keep teachers' rates at their current level. A state board in August approved increasing premiums by as much as 50 percent for the 47,000 teachers on the state plan starting Jan. 1. For example, the premium for family coverage under the most popular plan will increase from $1,029 to $1,528 a month.

Sen. Johnny Key, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the proposals represent what legislative leaders have been able to negotiate.

"It's not set in stone, but I guess you could say the chisel is getting ready to start hammering," said Key, R-Mountain Home.

Under the proposal, the hike would be reduced to 10 percent by the state increasing its funding to the system. The state would use $43 million from the surplus this year and would redirect $36.3 million in future years from general revenue, a school facilities program and the reduction of required professional development hours.

It also includes several changes to the teacher insurance system that lawmakers say is needed to make it more sustainable. Requiring a deductible for all plans in the system, allowing school districts to contribute to health savings accounts and the creation of a task force to review the system are among the changes being proposed.

Beebe last month delayed the Oct. 1 start of open enrollment for the teacher insurance program by a month to give lawmakers time to come up with proposals that could be considered during a special session.

"It's a good starting point and it covers the basic ingredients of what I was talking about," Beebe said.

In addition to the teacher insurance issues, Key said support is being measured for a proposal backed by Beebe to phase out the excess property tax revenue a handful of school districts have kept and redirect those funds to the state. The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled last year that the state can't keep the excess funds from districts where higher property tax collections pushed the districts above total school funding levels set by state law.

Beebe's office said the governor would still call a special session if there's support for the teacher insurance proposals, but not the property tax issue.

"It's something he would like to see addressed," Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said. "It is not a deal breaker."

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