The Arkansas General Assembly is expected to act on legislation Tuesday changing health insurance for public school employees, adding prison beds, and limiting lottery games. Day one of the special session laid the groundwork for what is expected to be a three day session.
For the third time since 1909 the House of Representatives took roll, referred bills to committees, and made generous remarks about the Natural State at the Old State House in Little Rock – though the state’s motto has changed four times since 1909. The House is meeting at what is now a museum because their chamber in the current Capitol building is being restored.
Most of the day’s actions consisted of formally preparing bills and rules for floor votes later this week. House Speaker Davy Carter led the proceedings.
“The question before the House is a motion to suspend for the duration of the Special Session House Rule 41 as it related to the two day calendaring of bills. All in favor say aye, all opposed nay. The ayes have it, the rule’s suspended,” said Carter.
The first day of the session was brief, under an hour long, but most legislators appeared to enjoy their time sitting at old wooden desks inside what is the oldest standing state Capitol building west of the Mississippi River. Speaker Carter pointed out affection for the Old State House is something relatively new.
“When the legislature did move to our current state Capitol the Governor was quoted as saying, ‘The appearance of the Senate chamber was that of an old coal bin,’” said Carter.
Historical reverence aside, legislators did act to push legislation on lottery restrictions, public school employee health insurance, and prison beds forward through committee actions. Floor votes are expected to take place this week. The items were largely agreed to ahead of time – a condition Governor Mike Beebe placed on calling a special session. But while the Joint Budget Committee easily passed a $6 million bill for 600 more prison beds Sherwood Democrat Jim Nickels tried to add one last provision. Nickels sought to partially pay over $8 million the state has failed to pay employees of the prison system.
“This is money that is actually owed to the prison workers,” said Nickels.
Senator Bart Hester responded, “There are people who did not get a paycheck that worked?”
“They did not get a full paycheck that worked holidays, yes,” said Nickels.
That was Republican Senator Bart Hester of Cave Springs, in northwest Arkansas, questioning Nickels. Hester, along with the majority of the committee voted against taking $5 million from the state’s $96 million surplus to pay what is owed prison employees. Nickels attributes the failure to a legislature eager to hold onto general improvement fund dollars – of which a percentage is dispersed to each members district.
“They would rather protect that than pay the workers what they’re owed,” said Nickels.
Committees also advanced measures changing health insurance for public school employees, such as eliminating coverage for part-timers, limiting spousal coverage, and redirecting tax savings from school districts to the insurance program. The biggest change yesterday to legislation was to legislation affecting what lottery games can be offered. Senator Jimmy Hickey says the change from a permanent ban on video-monitor games to a temporary prohibition was needed to secure passage out of committee.
“There is strong support for a permanent ban in both the…fully in the Senate, in the committee, and on the floor. There’s also strong support on the House floor, it’s just within the House Rules Committee we have not been able to get a full commitment of how people would vote,” said Hickey.
The last minute change would ban the monitor-based lottery drawings until the legislature meets in a regular session in March 2015. The Lottery Commission had planned to roll out the new style of games in the fall. The legislature meets for day two of the special session today and will likely pick up the bills passed out of committee Monday afternoon to begin consideration on the floor.