LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The measures lawmakers are taking up this week to avert a looming increase in teacher health insurance premiums and ease an influx of state inmates crowding local jails won't completely solve either problem. They're designed to at least give the Legislature and the next governor breathing room to look at longer term fixes next year.
Gov. Mike Beebe and lawmakers behind the proposals on the agenda for this week's special session acknowledge they're incremental steps, but dismiss the idea they're merely Band-Aid approaches to larger crises.
"If anybody thinks this is the end-all and the cure-all and the be-all of all this stuff, I suspect they'll be dealing with it for a while," Beebe told reporters last week after calling the special session, set to begin Monday.
Both problems have been percolating for some time. This will be the second time in less than a year that a special session has been called to address problems within the teacher insurance program. Plagued by low participation, costly benefits and high usage, the program faces a deficit that without the proposed fixes would lead to a 35 percent premium increase for thousands of teachers and public school employees.
Similar problems last year prompted Beebe to call a special session to avoid even larger premium increases for teachers. The measures approved last year included setting aside $43 million from the state budget surplus and redirecting state money toward the insurance program in future years.
The chairman of a legislative task force formed to review the teacher insurance program said more work will be needed even if lawmakers approve the measures proposed this week. The proposals include dropping part-time workers and some spouses from the teacher insurance plans.
"I wish we could declare at the end of the special session that's fixed and we can move on," said Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette. "What we have done now is we bought ourselves another year to look at some long-term strategies."
Those long-term solutions could include allowing school districts to purchase insurance for their employees outside of the state program, or merging the public school employee insurance program with the one offered for state employees. Those are proposals lawmakers can look at more closely without the shadow of a double-digit premium increase looming.
"This gets the program into the black, which allows us the opportunity to make other decisions moving forward," said Rep. Harold Copenhaver, D-Jonesboro, vice chairman of the task force.
Just like the insurance program, the additional funding for prisons is viewed as a bridge until lawmakers can find a longer term solution next year. Beebe has proposed freeing up $6.3 million in the budget to fund up to 600 additional prison beds. The move comes after county jails have been filling up with state inmates since the state enacted stricter probation and parole policies last year.
The Arkansas Sheriffs Association, which had urged lawmakers to address the overcrowding in a special session, said this month that more than 2,700 state inmates were being held at county jails. Beebe said the new funding will ease but not completely eliminate the influx county jails have seen.
"Opening 600 more beds certainly helps, but if you've got 2,500 backed up in county jails, simple math will tell you it's not the end of the story," Beebe said.
The session could offer a preview of what faces lawmakers during next year's session, when they're likely to be asked for additional funding for a new prison. Sen. David Sanders said lawmakers will also need to take a look at a longer term plan for the state's prison and parole system.
"You're not trying to manage from crisis to crisis. You're trying to manage so you can avoid the crisis and keep advancing," Sanders said. "You're giving yourself time to work."
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo.
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