State government: The fine print | Arkansas Blog

Saturday, October 12, 2013

State government: The fine print

Posted By on Sat, Oct 12, 2013 at 7:22 AM

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on careful reading this morning inspires a couple of comments:

click to enlarge SEN. JOHNNY KEY: Ideas for school insurance fix.
  • SEN. JOHNNY KEY: Ideas for school insurance fix.
* HEALTH INSURANCE: The newspaper wrote further about a plan to address the big rate increase in public school employee health insurance. The big part of the solution is a dip into surplus. Longer term, there's hope the increased revenue stream will continue to offset some of the price increase. Contributions are expected from other sources, too. Some structural changes are envisioned, including the end of a no-deductible policy option and an end to school districts' choosing to spend insurance money from the state on other purposes, such as salaries. This presumably would lead to lower rates and encourage more people to join. Allowing contributions by school districts to health savings plans is in the mix, too, a sign of Republican legislative dominance. Health savings accounts have a lackluster history. People with little money aren't attracted to them, for one thing. Also, a school district that won't use state money for insurance now doesn't seem a good candidate to suddenly volunteer more of its money for a savings account match.

But this is the part that jumped out at me in a listing of potential structural change:

...require the [public insurance] board to provide more education about plan options

Yes! Tell people more about insurance plan options and they might sign up! Advertise!

You get my drift. The same legislators who think more information is good for participation in teachers insurance have so far refused to approve a plan to advertise Arkansas's new private option version of Obamacare to expand the numbers served by the federally paid insurance plan. If it's good enough for school employees — and it is — it ought to be good enough for everybody else.

PS — Hats off to Sen. Johnny Key for floating a plan that recaptures base state millage from eight incredibly rich small school districts that recently got a windfall from a court decision — thanks to some quirky legislative drafting. He'd take the windfall back over three years.

'WHAT IF'" Audit director Roger Norman is now posing policy questions.
  • 'WHAT IF'" Audit director Roger Norman is now posing policy questions.
* USING LEGISLATIVE AUDIT AS A WEAPON: More news coverage today of a difference of opinion between the local police and fire pension fund (LOPFI) and Legislative Audit. First: I agree that a pension fund financed by creatures of the state — local governments — and funded in part by a state insurance premium tax should be solidly under state oversight. LOPFI contends it is not a state agency, but says it will be cooperative with audit and legislative wishes. But I don't much like how we got to this point. It looks to me like another example of Legislative Audit seeing itself as not only a weapon of favored legislators but a weapon of its own creation — de facto a new arm of government.

The short version of the dispute is that Audit wanted Social Security numbers of LOPFI members for its audit. LOPFI sued  to oppose this for fear that voluntarily turning over this private information would put it at risk of being held to have harmed the privacy interests of its members. A judge cleared it. The resistance made the bullies at Audit unhappy. Their recent audit actually found little of substance amiss at LOPFI, but nonetheless viewed with alarm what it saw as lack of audit oversight. Here's the morning's key quote from Roger Norman, director of Legislative Audit in arguing for more oversight:

If there are issues and and downturns in LOPFI, are they going to come back to the state and want money?

Well, what if? You could pose the same question about any retirement fund. Or any state agency depending on an elastic flow of money or unusual expenses.  Audit could just as easily find it improvident to approve the private option by saying: What if the federal money runs out? That's a policy debate, not an audit question.

When the legislature looks at LOPFI and whether it should be clearly established as a state agency, maybe it ought to also look at the over-reaching Legislative Audit and the actions  of Norman and chief counsel Frank Arey in everything from resisting Freedom of Information Act requests (claiming immunity from judicial review at one point), to implementing targeted probes of agencies unpopular with certain legislators and raising open-ended "what if" questions about an agency that just so happen to have recently irritated them. Unsettling things are happening at Audit, an agency once known, without question, for its probity. Unfortunately, the new Republican majority is appreciative of a vendetta tool and seems willing to use it liberally.

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