Wednesday, July 02, 2014

EDITORIAL >> Legislature goes home

The little special session of the Arkansas legislature that was called Monday to address three “emergencies” should have ended in the wee hours this morning, all its goals accomplished, but no one, surely, will call it a monument to vision and leadership by either the legislature or Governor Beebe.

It is usual for lawmakers to pat themselves on the back at the end of these sessions and for the governor to laud them for fulfilling their historic duty. But the three crises the legislators addressed were the products of their own past folly. And when the legislators return in January for regular business, all three crises will pop up again, perhaps even more urgently, owing to what they did this week.

Let’s take them up in the rank order of their urgency.

School employees health insurance: Because premiums had risen so much in recent years that younger and healthier teachers and school workers were stopping their participation, premiums for the rest were shooting upward. They faced a 35 percent hike this fall, steepening the death spiral for the whole program.

So a task force came up with a plan to “save” it. Lop off even more school employees—part-time workers and spouses who conceivably could get covered by their own employer plans—and take $4.6 million from struggling school districts and give it to the health- insurance plans for school and regular state employees. There also were smaller fixes: limiting coverage for weight-reduction surgery, requiring verification of each dependent’s eligibility and requiring employees in cheap high-deductible plans to have health-savings accounts.

So the legislature is addressing the problem of declining insurance coverage by removing even more people from the insurance rolls—those most desperate for coverage. But don’t worry about those people, the authors of the plan said, because many of them may get covered by Obamacare—the so-called “private option” to Medicaid that was developed last year by the Arkansas legislature. Wait! Aren’t these same legislators vowing to end Obamacare coverage of Arkansas’ poor next spring? Well, yes, but that’s nine months away. No need to worry about that now. You can’t help everyone.

The problem all along was that the state treats teachers and other school workers as second-class public employees. It doesn’t fund their insurance at even near the same rate that it does regular “state” employees— like legislators. If it did, there would be no crisis.

No, the concern is not that school employees are losing their health insurance but that actually protecting them might jeopardize the tax cuts for high-income folks and corporations enacted by the legislature the past three years and the further tax cuts planned by Republican lawmakers and their gubernatorial candidate next year. Anyway, everyone knows that people are fed up with subsidizing perks like health and retirement insurance for public employees. And if you make a fair contribution to school health insurance, then you can’t build enough new prisons to take care of needs or further reduce the income taxes of the job creators.

Prison crowding: The state is taking $6.3 million of surplus from a fund that services a variety of state agencies and giving it to the Department of Correction to open a new unit that sits idle, which will allow the penitentiary to absorb 354 more prisoners who are waiting in county jails now overflowing with state prisoners. In Pulaski and elsewhere, the backup is so bad they are instantly freeing all but those arrested for serious violent crimes. Yesterday, county jails were holding 2,486 convicts because the state penitentiaries had no place for them.

When the legislature reconvenes this winter, it will have to deal with the bigger issue again, as it has failed to do with some regularity. To house the rapidly growing number of convicts the state needs to spend hundreds of millions on new prisons and employees. But you can’t do that and also pay for a constitutional public education while also cutting the taxes of the well to do and corporations. One or the other has to give. It’s the former.

This started in 1977, when a cry about the need to get tough on crime produced the first of a long string of laws lengthening and stacking prison sentences for repeat offenders and marijuana and drug-law violators.

Back in 1977, Arkansas housed roughly 2,500 prisoners and spent $6 million a year controlling them. After serial episodes of getting tough on crime, at intervals of about every five years, the state inmate population now stands at 16,450 (that doesn’t include the 2,486 warehoused in county jails) and the annual cost to taxpayers, including supervising parolees, has soared from $6 million a year to $500 million a year. Arkansas’ population has risen by a mere 35 percent.

You see the problem. What the legislature did this week was quiet local law-enforcement officials and the courts for a few weeks. They can empty a few jail cells and get a few criminals off the streets. The dithering will resume in January.

Video gambling: With lottery sales slipping every year, as history predicted they would, the state Lottery Commission wants to start video gambling, which can grab addicts like nothing else. “Oh, no, we can’t let them prey on the poor like that,” a handful of lawmakers said. “We’ve got to pass a law to prevent it.”

Video wagering is, indeed, a terrible thing, just as government-sponsored gambling is in even its most innocent state. But this movement isn’t really about saving the poor from their weaknesses but protecting the Oaklawn Jockey Club, Arkansas’ biggest gambling operation, from the competition of the lottery. The legislature gave Oaklawn the authority to engage in video wagering a while back and its monopoly must be protected.

So, demonstrating the same courage it showed with the insurance and prison crises, the legislature called for a punt. Stall the lottery’s online wagering until next March and maybe Providence will intervene with a solution.

Leadership, 2014 model.