LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- Arkansas lawmakers advanced proposals Thursday to increase funding for teacher insurance, as they opened a special session aimed at reducing rate increases of up to 50 percent set to hit next year.
The Joint Budget Committee endorsed a plan to use $43 million from the state surplus this year to reduce the premium increases. Identical versions of the proposal now head to the House and Senate.
Proposals to redirect money to teacher insurance and overhaul the program also easily won support from legislative committees.
"We've got to make sure we've got a sustainable health insurance program ... for public school employees," said Rep. Tommy Wren, D-Melbourne, who chairs the House Insurance and Commerce Committee.
State officials say an additional $54 million is needed to keep teachers' rates at the current level. A state board in August approved increasing premiums by as much as 50 percent for the 47,000 teachers on the state plan starting Jan. 1. For example, the premium for family coverage under the most popular plan will increase from $1,029 to $1,528 a month.
The bills advanced a day after Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, called lawmakers back to the Capitol to address the premium hikes. The proposals are expected to lower the increases to 10 percent.
The centerpiece of the teacher insurance fixes is the plan to use surplus money this year, a move that requires the support of three-fourths of the House and Senate. Legislative leaders have assured Beebe there are enough votes in the House and Senate for the plan, a condition the Democratic governor had set for calling the session.
The premium increases would be alleviated in future years by redirecting state money from a school facilities program and the reduction of required professional development hours.
An effort to change the way the $43 million would be paid failed when the budget committee rejected a proposal to use $20 million from a fund the governor controls for one-time needs and economic development incentives.
House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, who proposed the change, said he planned to try again Friday to push the provision.
"I think it's only right that the executive branch bear some of fiscal responsibility for this, since it happened on their watch," Westerman said after the vote.
The long-term changes lawmakers are considering to the insurance program include requiring deductibles and the creation of a task force to call for more reforms.
"This is not just a situation where money is being put into a program," said Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, chairman of the Senate Insurance and Commerce Committee. "Literally, this is the beginning of what I would say is fundamental, systemic reform."
On an unrelated matter, a House panel advanced repealing a measure approved in March that eased water quality standards for waterways that aren't used for drinking water. Federal officials have said the law doesn't comply with the Clean Water Act.
Associated Press Writer Chuck Bartels contributed to this report.
Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo