- Associated Press - Monday, June 30, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - With one chamber meeting in the state’s original Capitol, Arkansas lawmakers moved quickly Monday to advance measures aimed at addressing teacher insurance premiums, prison overcrowding and new restrictions on the lottery as they opened a special legislative session.

House and Senate committees wasted no time endorsing the legislation tackling the three issues on the agenda for the session, setting up both chambers for votes on the measures Tuesday. A compromise on an effort to prevent the lottery from expanding its games also cleared the way for a quick end to the session.

The session’s opening marked the first time lawmakers have taken up substantive legislation in the Old State House since 1909, with the House using the historic building while its chamber is under renovation. The Senate is meeting at its usual chamber at the Capitol.

“Let’s continue to make our state proud with the work that we do here in the coming days,” House Speaker Davy Carter told representatives, half of whom were seated at 1800s replica desks.

Proposals to address a looming hike in teacher insurance premiums easily cleared House and Senate committees. The proposals were crafted to avert a 35 percent insurance premium increase that thousands of teachers and public school employees are set to face this fall. The proposals to offset the increase include measures that would take part-time employees off the teacher insurance program, and remove any employees’ spouses if they have access to their own employers’ health insurance.

The package also would allow the state to transfer an expected $4.6 million in tax savings to school districts.

“The changes, while they are hard, the alternative is worse - come up with $20 million to $25 million out of the teachers’ pockets,” said Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, who co-sponsored the legislative package.

The measures mark the second time in less than a year that lawmakers have held a special session to avert premium hikes in the teacher insurance program, which has been plagued by low participation, expensive benefits and high usage. At least one lawmaker complained the moves aren’t doing enough to address the long-term problems with the program.

“I don’t think it’s a complete fix,” said Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville, who voted against one of the proposals before the House Insurance and Commerce Committee. “They’re going to have to come back and ask for more money later.”

The Joint Budget Committee also advanced identical 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 Arkansas Sheriffs Association said in June that more than 2,700 state inmates were being held at county jails. Identical versions of the bill are set to go before the House and Senate Tuesday afternoon.

Gov. Mike Beebe called the session after being assured there were enough votes to pass measures dealing with the three issues. The biggest unknown appeared to be resolved when the House Rules Committee endorsed a proposal to bar the lottery from starting monitor-style games such as keno until March 13, 2015.

Carter, who had resisted an outright ban, backed the compromise measure and said it would give lawmakers time to address the issue during next year’s regular session.

The opening of the special session featured a mash-up of old and new, with lawmakers taking pictures with their smartphones and tweeting from the floor of the former House chamber.

Rep. Charlene Fite wore a full-length replica 1800s dress. Fite said she borrowed it from a friend who is a historic re-enactor.

“To wear this for such a historic occasion, I just couldn’t pass that up,” said Fite, R-Van Buren.

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