LITTLE ROCK — A package of proposals that would increase funding for school employees’ health insurance to hold down a steep rate hike advanced in legislative committees Thursday, the first day of a special session called by Gov. Mike Beebe.
The Joint Budget Committee approved identical bills — Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 1003 — that would use $43 million in state surplus funds to avert a 50 percent rise in health insurance rates set to go into effect Jan. 1.
The budget panel endorsed the legislation after the rejecting an amendment by two House members to use $20 million from the governor’s General Improvement Fund allotment and reduce the amount from the state surplus to $23 million.
Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, said the amendment would allow the governor to directly share in the cost of helping teachers with their insurance premiums.
"It was the (Employment Benefits Division) Board that I believe didn’t have the proper oversight, which is part of the executive branch," Westerman said, noting that the governor appoints members to the EBD board.
Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, a co-sponsor of the bill, spoke against Westerman’s amendment, say he had asked the House majority leader not to do anything that would disrupt the process "out of respect for the time that we have put in, the fact that we have agreed, in general and consensus, to even be here today at this point."
Rapert was one of the senators who helped develop the package of bills to help teachers and school personnel avoid skyrocketing insurance rates.
"I told him that I could not be a party to anything that would disrupt the good will that we have been able to achieve at this point," the senator said.
The committee later rejected the amendment, with 12 voting for it and 27 against.
The identical bills are to be considered in their respective chambers Friday.
The budget committee also rejected SB 3 by Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, which would have required the state to pay $340,000 in lawyer fees accumulated by eight school districts involved lawsuit against the state claiming their right to keep excess revenue that they collect from a statewide property tax.
The Supreme Court last year said the districts did not have to surrender to the state Department of Education money they collect under the statewide 25-mill property tax that exceeds the state-mandated per-student funding level.
The state has asked the Supreme Court for reconsideration of its decision. SB 7 by Sen. Bruce Maloch, D-Magnolia, which would change state statutes to prohibit school districts from keeping the excess tax money, was endorsed by the Senate Education Committee after a two-hour meeting.
Clark said it was only fair that the state help the districts pay their attorneys.
Eugene Sayre of Little Rock, an attorney for the districts, told the committee he filed a motion in circuit court asking that the state pay the attorneys fees, but pulled it back after the attorney general’s office argued the state has sovereign immunity.
Sayre later told lawmakers he planned to file a claim with the Arkansas Claims Commission after the state’s request for reconsideration has been considered by the high court.
Rapert, a member of the Senate Education Committee, said SB 7 should never have been on the special session agenda.
"We came here agreeing on certain issues that we could support and I pray to God above that after all of this sideshow that we can come and do the business for the teachers, school bus drivers and cafeteria workers of this state that are employed by taxpayers," he said.
Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, spoke for the bill, saying "no matter which way you vote, it hurts" because there has to be a balance between voting from your heart and voting for the best policy.
"Those can be two very, very different things and this a very good demonstration of that very conundrum, knowing what you feel in your heart and knowing what policy must be, according to what you know historically, according to what you know about (legislative) intent, and according to what we have been charged with doing for the best for all kids in this state," she said.
State Education Commissioner Ed Kimbrell spoke for the measure.
Key said after the meeting that the bill would be considered by the Senate Friday.
Also Thursday, the Senate Education Committee endorsed SB 4 by Rapert, under which state funding now going to school facilities programs that are being phased out would go instead to help with school employees’ health insurance premiums.
The panel also approved SB 5 by Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, which would reduce schools’ funding for professional development from $54 to $32.20 per student and would eliminate a requirement that teachers complete 60 hours of professional development per year, beginning in the 2014-15 school year.
Both bills would take effect in the 2014-15 fiscal year.
Meeting separately, the House and Senate insurance and commerce committees advanced identical bills which would create a task force to study all aspects of insurance programs for state employees, as well as teachers and school personnel.
The 14-member task force, which would include state insurance officials and current and retired state employees, along with current and retired teachers, would have until the end of June 2014 to recommendation structural changes to the insurance programs. The report would be considered by legislative committees in advance of the 2015 legislative session.
SB 6 by Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, and HB 1011 by Rep. Tommy Wren, D-Melbourne, were to be considered in their respective chambers Friday.
The House Public Health and Welfare committee also met Thursday and endorsed HB 1002 by Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock, which would repeal Act 954 of 2013, which eased regulatory requirements on municipalities and industries that discharge minerals into Arkansas waterways.
Beebe said this week that the law needs to be repealed because the federal Environmental Protection Agency has complained and said it would begin reviewing all water permits. HB 1002 is on Friday’s House agenda.