LITTLE ROCK — With short-term fixes in place on teacher health insurance premiums, prison overcrowding and new limits on the lottery, Arkansas lawmakers shifted their attention Wednesday to finding longer term answers when they return for next year’s legislative session.
The House and Senate gave final approval early Wednesday morning to a package of bills tackling the three issues they were called back into session to address. Gov. Mike Beebe said he planned to sign the measures into law Thursday.
The measures offer short-term relief to issues that legislative leaders say will remain at the top of their agenda when the House and Senate return for next year’s session in January.
"I’m satisfied with what we did here, but I don’t want to say that means we’ve permanently solved the problems, because that’s not what we did," Senate President Michael Lamoureux said shortly after the votes.
Chief among the issues is the teacher insurance program, which for the second year in a row faced a deficit that would have otherwise led to double-digit premium increases for thousands of public school employees. The bills headed to Beebe’s desk are aimed at averting a 35 percent hike by removing part-time workers and some spouses from the program, among other changes.
The program has been beset by low participation, expensive benefits and a high number of claims. The chairman of the legislative task force charged with overhauling the program said lawmakers will have to look at more comprehensive changes, including having school districts contract with health insurers on their own rather than a state-administered system.
Another possible change would be to merge the teacher insurance program with one offered to state employees.
"What we’ve done is we bought ourselves some time now to start looking at some long-term reform and structural changes," said Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette. "We just did not have the time frame necessary because it’s going to be controversial. Long-term change is going to bring some controversy."
On prisons, lawmakers gave some ongoing relief to ease prison overcrowding around the state by transferring $6.2 million in the budget to open 600 more beds for inmates.
The money was approved in response to an influx of state inmates at local jails following tighter probation and parole rules approved last year.
The next step, lawmakers say, will be looking at building a new state prison to ease the overcrowding further and the possibility of adding other facilities.
"There’s the question: How can we optimize the process? How can we optimize what we have and do it better with the resources we have today?" said Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock. "After we do that ... then what additional revenue do we need to include and where do we need to put it?"
Lawmakers also deferred the final decision on whether to ban the lottery from launching monitor games such as keno until next year’s session. Facing resistance from House leaders, the sponsor of legislation banning the game modified his proposal to make it a moratorium that will expire March 13, 2015.
Sen. Jimmy Hickey, who sponsored the moratorium, said he planned to push for a permanent ban during next year’s session.