State lawmakers wrapped up the special legislative session in the early morning hours Wednesday, giving final approval to measures addressing three issues that are expected to come up again in next year’s regular session.
The House and Senate convened shortly after midnight and conducted final votes on measures to avoid a $36.6 million deficit in the public school employees’ health insurance fund, temporarily bar the state lottery from adding monitor games and fund new prison beds. Legislators sent all of the measures to Gov. Mike Beebe, who has said he would sign them into law.
The special session began Monday. The midnight meetings that concluded the session allowed the Legislature to end the session as quickly as possible while still complying with the constitutional requirement that it take at least three calendar days to pass a bill. The Senate met at the Capitol building while the House met at the Old State House because of renovations underway in the House chamber at the Capitol.
"We were able to get in and get out very efficiently, which is always a plus," said House Speaker-designate Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia.
On the insurance issue, legislators approved a package of proposals that would, among other things, eliminate coverage for about 4,000 part-time school employees, eliminate coverage for spouses of school employees and state employees if they can obtain coverage through their employers; and transfer to the school employees’ insurance fund an estimated $4.6 million a year that school districts have been saving in federal payroll taxes by contributing to employees’ insurance.
The action followed a special session in October during which the Legislature infused the fund with one-time money. Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, chairman of a task force that recommended the proposals, acknowledged that more will need to be done in next year’s regular session.
"We certainly have said all along we’re not finished with reforming the plan," he said. "The task force goes until June of 2015, so we’ve got another year and that’s a good thing."
Hendren said he did not know what future reforms might include.
"We didn’t know what this bill would look like six months ago, so we don’t know what the long-range bill will look like six months from now. Hopefully we will find some changes that give us long-term stability, and that’s what we are going to look for," he said.
Rep. Harold Copenhaver, D-Jonesboro, vice chairman of the task force, said privatization of the school employees’ insurance system is one possibility to consider.
On the lottery issue, legislators approved a measure that would prohibit the state Lottery Commission from introducing monitor games, in which drawings are held every few minutes and results are displayed on monitors at lottery retailers, until next March.
Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, initially proposed a permanent ban but modified his proposal as a compromise to get it through a House committee.
Hickey said he "definitely" plans to propose a permanent ban during next year’s session. In the meantime, he said he will ask the state Bureau of Legislative Research to look at how other states run their lotteries and see whether there are more efficient structures than Arkansas’ — such as one in which the lottery would be controlled directly by legislators instead of by an appointed committee.
"Maybe we are operating the most effective way with our structure, but I do want to use this time to see how other states handle this, if they are operating in a different manner, and make sure there is not a more efficient and effective way," he said.
To address prison overcrowding, legislators approved a measure that would free up about $6.3 million from the state Central Services Fund to fund up to 604 prison beds.
"When you talk to these county sheriffs in these counties (that are housing state prisoners waiting for prison bed space), they can’t afford it," said House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot. "We had to do what was done today. But the story is not over there, either. I don’t know what the answer is. That’s always been a problem and will continue to be an issue that needs to be watched closely."
Senate President Pro Tem-designate Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, said that "there are some discussions about perhaps looking at the ability to utilize some of the facilities in Louisiana and then in general a revamping or second look at what we did, you know the drastic changes that we made to the sentencing guidelines (during the 2011 regular session). I think it will be a comprehensive look … and most of that will be left to the next governor to make some decisions."
Does the state need to build a new prison?
"I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s an automatic at this point that they’re going to have to build one," said Gillam. "But there are a lot of signs that point that direction at this point. We’ve got a lot of really intelligent, creative folks in the state, so they’re going to look at several options and look at what’s the best for public safety and for the state budget as well."
Gillam said he was optimistic about the next session.
"It’ll be challenging, but I feel like we’re going to be able to meet those challenges and make the citizens of this state proud," he said.
Reporter Rob Moritz contributed to this report.