Beebe signs bills from special session into law

By Rob Moritz

Arkansas News Bureau

LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Mike Beebe on Monday signed into law legislation from last week’s special session to shore up the health insurance system for teachers and other public school employees.

Also Monday, House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, appointed four House members to a task force that will recommend structural changes for the long-term stability of the system.

The Legislature met in a three-day special session last week and approved a package of proposals intended to increase funding to avert a nearly 50 percent increase in premiums set to go into effect Jan. 1 and hold down future rate hikes.

Beebe signed identical House and Senate bills into law as Act 3 and Act 6 to create the State and Public School Health Insurance Program Legislative Task Force. The 12-member panel is a key component of the package approved by the Legislature. It is to study the system, submit its findings and make recommendations for changes by June 30, 2014, in time for consideration in the 2015 regular session.

The task force will consist of the chairmen of the Senate and House Education committees — Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, and Rep. James McLean, D-Batesville — and chairmen of the House and Senate Insurance and Commerce committees — Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, and Rep. Tommy Wren, D-Melbourne.

The four House members appointed by Carter on Monday were Reps. George McGill, D-Fort Smith; Harold Copenhaver, D-Jonesboro; Bill Gossage, R-Ozark, and Allen Kerr, R-Little Rock.

Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureaux, R-Russellville, had not named his four appointees to the task force by Monday afternoon.

Along with signing the task force legislation — HB 1011 and SB 6 — into law Monday, Beebe also signed:

—House Bill 1003, now Act 5, which allows the transfer of $43 million from the state surplus to the insurance system to hold the increase in premiums to 10 percent on Jan. 1.

—Senate Bill 4, now Act 1, which will divert $16 million in state funds from school facilities programs that are being phased out to help with school employees’ insurance premiums, beginning in the 2014-15 fiscal year.

—SB 5, now Act 2, which redirects $10 million in state funding for teacher professional development to school employees’ health insurance premiums. The legislation reduces funding for professional development from $54 to $32.20 per student in each school district and reduces from 60 hours per year to 36 hours per year amount of professional development teachers must complete, beginning in the 2014-15 fiscal year.

The governor also signed House Bill 1002, now Act 4, which repeals Act 954 of this year’s regular session. Act 954 eased regulatory requirements on municipalities and industries that discharge minerals into Arkansas waterways not used for drinking water. The federal Environmental Protection Agency objected to the law and said it would step in and begin reviewing all water permits.

In his weekly radio address, Beebe discussed the complexity of the issue the Legislature addressed in the three-day session that began Thursday and ended just after midnight Saturday. He also praised lawmakers for their bipartisanship during the session.

"School and health-insurance funding are not simple issues," Beebe said. "There are no perfect answers here, and there will be much work still ahead as this special session ends. We’ve just seen again how dysfunctional and unproductive Congress can be in our nation’s capital. I’m pleased to say that in Arkansas, with a few exceptions, we continue to show that pragmatic cooperation can win out over political posturing."