- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 24, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe on Tuesday called lawmakers back to the Capitol to address a looming increase in teacher insurance premiums and prison overcrowding, two issues that are expected to linger despite the short-term fixes.

Beebe issued a proclamation convening a special legislative session to begin June 30 to address the two issues. This is the third special session Beebe has convened since taking office in 2007.

The session is intended to focus primarily on measures aimed at averting a 35 percent premium increase set to hit 47,000 public school employees this fall. The proposals being considered include dropping part-time employees from plans and excluding spouses from coverage if they can receive insurance from their own work. The package includes a plan to transfer $4.6 million in expected tax savings from districts to the state for the insurance program.

Beebe said both issues need to be addressed quickly, but said the proposals being considered are “incremental” steps toward dealing with two long-term problems facing the state.

“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 after signing the proclamation.

The legislation also includes proposals to require verifying the eligibility of dependents on teacher insurance policies and to allow the state to scale back or eliminate coverage for weight loss surgery.

The shortfall is blamed on an increasingly expensive insurance program, with many employees participating in generous plans that feature no deductibles. The Legislature last year required the plans to include a deductible starting in 2015, as part of a series of measures aimed at overhauling the program.

The session will also include legislation that would free up $6.3 million in the budget to fund 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 Arkansas Sheriffs Association earlier this month said 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.

Beebe has said he’s been assured more than 60 percent of House and Senate members support the jail and insurance proposals, and he expected the session to wrap up within the minimum three days.

This will be the second special session the Legislature has held over the past year to address the teacher insurance program. Beebe signed into law measures approved during a special session in October aimed at limiting premium increases, including setting aside $43 million from the state budget surplus and redirecting state money in future years.

A superintendent from one district said the legislation being considered isn’t addressing the long-term problems facing the program, including a low participation rate.

“We’re not doing anything to attract more people in to the plan,” said Benny Gooden, superintendent of Fort Smith Public Schools. “In fact it appears we’re trying to shed people from the plan.”

Beebe signed the call hours after saying plans for a special session were on hold over a version of the teacher insurance legislation that would have altered the state’s school funding formula to recoup the tax savings from districts. Beebe said he had been reassured by legislative leaders that their plan for recouping the tax savings won’t affect the funding formula.

Beebe said the session won’t include an effort to prevent the state lottery from adding monitor games such as keno. House leaders have said there wasn’t enough support in their chamber to take up that matter in a special session.

Renovations to the House chamber means representatives will instead meet at the Old State House, which had served as the state Capitol until 1911. House staff said the Legislature has only met three times since then in the building that currently serves as a museum, with the most recent meeting in 1983.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo .

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