Arkansas legislators ended their extraordinary session with an extraordinarily late gathering Saturday — giving final approval to a package of bills intended to limit health insurance premium increases for thousands of public school teachers.
A 33-hour session wrapped up shortly after the state House and Senate convened at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. Special sessions must last at least three days so bills can be introduced, passed in one chamber and then considered by the other. Meeting right after midnight meant legislators didn't have to wait for a Saturday daytime session to conduct 15 minutes of work.
Under the package of bills approved, the state will use surplus money this year and redirect state funds in future years to lower teachers' insurance premiums. Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe likely will sign the bills into law on Monday.
"We've got the framework in place for the long term and we have the short-term bleeding stopped, so I think we accomplished what we set out to do," Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said after the votes.
The state has 47,000 teachers in an insurance plan and the state board that governs their rates had approved premium increases near 50 percent, effective Jan. 1. For example, the premium for family coverage under the most popular plan would increase from $1,029 to $1,528 a month.
State officials say a total of $54 million would be needed to keep teachers' rates at the current level. The legislation offers $43 million in state surplus money this year and is expected to lower the premium increases to 10 percent.
The plan's open enrollment period begins Nov. 1 — a month later than intended after Beebe delayed it so lawmakers could address the premium hikes.
Supporters said the measures would provide relief for hard-working teachers across the state.
"They're in the profession for the right reasons. They believe in educating their kids," Beebe told reporters Friday. "They deserve all the help we can give them."