Lawmakers Convene for Special Session

Arkansas lawmakers opened a special legislative session Monday where they hope to tackle rising teacher health insurance premiums, prison overcrowding and an effort to prevent the state lottery from offering keno.

Gov. Mike Beebe ordered the session last week after legislative leaders assured him there were enough votes to pass measures focused on the three issues. Legislative leaders believe they can wrap up the session by Wednesday morning.

Renovations to the House chamber 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 is meeting at the state Capitol as usual.

House Speaker Davy Carter noted that representatives were convening in the same building where Arkansas' constitution was signed.

"Let's continue to make our state proud with the work that we do here in the coming days," Carter told members.

The push for the session began in response to a 35 percent insurance premium increase that thousands of teachers and public school employees are set to face this fall. The proposals to offset the increase include measures that would take part-time employees off the teacher insurance program, and 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 to school districts.

The package comes after recommendations by a task force formed to look at insurance programs for teachers and public school employees.

The effort to prohibit the lottery from starting monitor-style games such as keno may be the most unpredictable part of this week's session. Beebe added the proposal to the session call Friday afternoon and said there's more than enough support in both chambers, 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 said in June that more than 2,700 state inmates were being held at county jails.