BY SENATOR LARRY TEAGUE –
LITTLE ROCK – During a three-day special session the legislature provided $43 million in funding in 2014 to hold down anticipated increases in health insurance for teachers and other school personnel.
The financial boost comes from surplus funds that were not budgeted and not spent when the fiscal year ended. It will hold down increases in teacher health insurance premiums from about 50 percent to about 10 percent.
The legislature also passed measures to shore up the public school health insurance system over the long term. About 47,000 school workers and their families are covered in the plan.
Beginning in Fiscal Year 2015, schools will spend an additional $16.3 million on health insurance that previously has been spent on facilities. Also, another $10 million will become available in the 2014-2015 school year because professional development standards were loosened. Instead of being required to offer 60 hours of teacher development courses, schools will be required to offer 36 hours. Funding for professional development will be lowered from $54 per student to $32 per student.
In future sessions, legislators will likely be asked to dedicate more money from the state general revenue fund toward health insurance. Teachers and school staff will be expected to contribute more, perhaps in the form of higher co-payments and deductibles.
Employee contributions now add up to about $131 million a year. School districts contribute another $96 million and the state contributes about $58 million. The bulk of school district revenue comes from state aid.
During the special session the legislature also created a task force to work on long-term structural changes, to prevent the need to bail out the system. The current Board that oversees the teacher health insurance system will have seven new members, thanks to new legislation that causes their current terms to expire on November 30. Legislators were critical of the oversight board for allowing health insurance to become so drastically expensive for public school employees.
One measure failed during the special session. It was a proposal to divert to the state local property tax from eight school districts. The districts have relatively high revenues from the state-mandated minimum 25 mills that all districts must levy for schools.
Also during the special session the legislature approved a bill unrelated to health insurance. It repealed Act 954 of 2013, a measure that would have relaxed requirements for testing of water pollution. The federal Environmental Protection Agency objected to Act 954 and threatened to step in and use federal officials and federal regulations to enforce clean water standards in Arkansas.
The special session ended on a historic footnote. Both chambers of the legislature convened at a few minutes after midnight, on the third day of the session. The Senate and House quickly passed a handful of bills and concluded the session. It was the first time the legislature began the third and final day of a special session so late at night.
Special sessions must last a minimum of three days, under the state Constitution. That requirement was fulfilled even though from beginning to end the session lasted only 33 hours and about 10 minutes. It began at 3 p.m. on Thursday and adjourned at 12:10 a.m. on Saturday.