Policy: Entitlements

Arkansas lawmakers OK insurance, lotto, prisons bills

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Associated Press,Arkansas,Health Care,Medicare and Medicaid,Entitlements,Budgets and Deficits,Pensions

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas lawmakers gave final approval early Wednesday to bills addressing teacher health insurance premiums, prison overcrowding and new limits on the lottery, wrapping up a special legislative session that left unresolved until next year the long-term questions surrounding the three issues.

Meeting shortly after midnight, the House and Senate quickly passed a package of bills on the three issues they were called back into session to tackle. The twilight votes allowed the Legislature to adjourn the session within the minimum three days required by law.

Gov. Mike Beebe plans to sign all of the bills into law. He called the session last week after being assured by legislative leaders there were enough votes in both chambers to approve the bills.

Legislative leaders said the package of bills offer short-term relief on all three issues, acknowledging more comprehensive fixes will be needed when they return for next year's session.

"I think they're all ongoing issues, so we'll never get to say we're done and walk away from them," Senate President Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, said after the votes. "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."

The top agenda item for legislators was a plan to avert a 35 percent increase in health insurance premiums for thousands of public school employees by removing part-time workers and some spouses from the plan, among other changes. It was the second time in the past year lawmakers have had to act to prevent double-digit premium hikes in a program that has been plagued by low participation, expensive benefits and a high number of claims.

Legislative leaders said the package of bills will give them time to look at more comprehensive reforms, including having districts contract with insurers on their own rather than a state-administered program.

"Failure to act would mean an ongoing deficit, which would negatively impact the education of our youth," said Rep. Harold Copenhaver, D-Jonesboro, who co-sponsored the legislation.

Opponents of the plan objected to the idea that many of the part-time employees no longer covered by the program could enroll in Arkansas' compromise Medicaid expansion. The "private option" Medicaid expansion — which uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for the poor — faces an shaky future in the Legislature next year.

"What's going to happen to them then?" said Rep. David Fielding, D-Magnolia, who voted against the teacher insurance bills. "There's just too much uncertainty about what's going to happen to those part time workers."

Lawmakers delayed a final decision on expanding the lottery's games, opting for a moratorium on starting monitor games such as keno rather than an outright ban. The proposal backed by the House and Senate prohibits the lottery from starting the games until March 13, 2015.

"It guarantees we will bring this back up in the regular session," said Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, who had originally pushed for an outright ban but modified his bill to win support from House leaders.

The Arkansas Lottery Commission has approved the start of keno, a bingo-style game that would have draws every six minutes, which players would track on monitors. The lottery projected it would sell $12.5 million worth of tickets for the monitor games, which would create $3.8 million in revenue for college scholarships.

Lottery Director Bishop Woosley said he planned to meet with lawmakers to explain to them why lottery officials want to start the games.

"It is my job to try and find new sources of revenue. That's what I have to do," Woosley told reporters.

The session also sets the stage for a renewed look at the state's prison system next year, with lawmakers easing but not completely eliminating overcrowding at local jails around the state. The House and Senate approved bills to transfer $6.2 million in state funds to pay for 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 session marked the first time lawmakers took up substantive legislation in Arkansas' Old State House since 1909. The House used the historic building for the special session due to renovations in its chamber. The Senate met in its usual chamber in the state Capitol.

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