Lawmakers Hope for Quick Session on 3 Issues

LITTLE ROCK - Arkansas legislative leaders hope to quickly tackle the three issues facing them in this week's special session, but the addition of a bill to restrict the lottery's games and objections to changes in teacher insurance could complicate those plans.

The House and Senate will convene Monday afternoon for a special legislative session called to deal with teacher insurance, prison overcrowding and the state's lottery. It'll be the third special session held since Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe took office in 2007.

Renovations to the House chamber have moved representatives to the Old State House for the session, marking the first time substantive legislation has been taken up in the building since 1909. The Senate will meet at the state Capitol as usual.

Beebe, who is serving his last year as governor, called the session after being assured by legislative leaders there are more than enough votes to pass the proposals aimed at averting a 35 percent increase in teacher insurance premiums and easing an influx of state inmates at county jails. He later added a proposal that would prohibit lottery officials from adding video monitor-style games such as keno.

Beebe and legislative leaders say they're confident they can wrap up the session's work within the minimum three days, with the possibility of final votes occurring Wednesday morning, shortly after midnight.

"Having that assurance and seeing it through may be two different things, but I believe them. I think they're trustworthy in terms of everyone agreeing that win, lose or fall on any of those issues that three days is the agreement upon the parties," Beebe told reporters.

The push for the session began in response to a 35 percent premium increase that thousands of teachers and public school employees are otherwise set to face this fall. The proposals before the Legislature include measures that would take part-time employees off the teacher insurance program. It would also remove any employees' spouses if they have access to their own employers health insurance.

The package also would allow the state to transfer an expected $4.6 million in tax savings the districts will see. The package comes after recommendations issued by a task force formed to look at the insurance programs for teachers and public school employees.

"The task force was formed to find a solution to a train that's been derailed, and that's teacher insurance," said state Rep. Harold Copenhaver, D-Jonesboro, vice chairman of the task force.

But the proposals face opposition from some lawmakers who don't support the removal of part-time employees. The Arkansas State Employees Association is also objecting to the legislative package for it also removing some state employees' spouses from the insurance program.

The biggest unknown for the session is how a proposal to ban the lottery from starting monitor-style games such as keno will fare. Beebe added the proposal to the session call Friday afternoon, but acknowledged it's unclear whether the proposal has the votes to make it out of a House committee.

Senate leaders have been pushing for the measure, saying voters didn't envision keno when they approved the lottery in 2008. House leaders have said they'd prefer to not take up the matter in a special session.

The session will also 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.

The Arkansas Sheriffs Association earlier this month said that more than 2,700 state inmates were being held at county jails.

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