LITTLE ROCK — Lawmakers will come back to the Capitol this week after Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe on Wednesday called a special session to consider an increase in funding for the state’s teacher insurance program.
Beebe issued a proclamation calling for the session to begin Thursday afternoon, with lawmakers expected to work through Saturday on the plan, which would lower insurance premium hikes set to take effect next year.
"I would not be issuing this call if we hadn’t already seen extraordinary bipartisan efforts to help our teachers and other public-school employees in Arkansas," Beebe said in a statement. "After dozens of meetings with legislators, district officials, teachers and other involved parties, we have a solution that may not please every individual group, but will help alleviate the spike in insurance rates and shore up this insurance program."
The announcement came a day after Beebe said there wasn’t enough support for a special session. Beebe has said time was running short on finding consensus, since open enrollment begins Nov. 1.
State officials say an additional $54 million is needed to keep teachers’ rates at the 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.
Legislative leaders have been measuring support for a plan where the state would use $43 million from its surplus this year and redirect state money in subsequent years. The new money would lower the premium increases to 10 percent.
Using the surplus money would require the support of 75 House members and 27 senators. Beebe told reporters Wednesday the plan has the support of at least 77 House members and 29 senators.
The governor said legislators will also consider a proposal unrelated to the insurance premiums that would 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 money from districts where higher property tax collections pushed the districts above total school funding levels set by state law.
The plan faced opposition from lawmakers who represent those districts and had appeared to be an obstacle in winning enough votes for the teacher insurance fixes. But Senate leaders said Wednesday the bigger issue had been assuring lawmakers that the long-term structural changes would also make the insurance program sustainable.
"What they wanted to see is that legislative intent that says we’re not going to continue to bail out the system, reforms are going to have to take place and if they don’t take place, these funding streams we’re putting in there, we’re going to pull those back down the road," Sen. Johnny Key, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said.
Key said the session proclamation is expected to include four bills addressing the teacher insurance premiums and one on the property tax issue.
Beebe’s proclamation did not include any other issues, despite a suggestion by some lawmakers to consider ethics and campaign finance reform during the special session. Beebe’s office said the governor wasn’t shown there was enough support to pass those proposals.