LITTLE ROCK — The legislative Joint Budget Committee voted Tuesday to adopt a subcommittee's recommendation to restore 20 positions to the state Forestry Commission, though how the positions would be funded was unclear.
LITTLE ROCK — The legislative Joint Budget Committee voted Tuesday to adopt a subcommittee’s recommendation to restore 20 positions to the state Forestry Commission, though how the positions would be funded was unclear.
In its final hearing before the fiscal session that begins Feb. 13, the committee endorsed a proposal from its forestry subcommittee to include enough appropriations to restore 20 positions related to firefighting in the Forestry Commission’s budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Gov. Mike Beebe has recommended appropriating $17.3 million for the commission and keeping the staff size at 262, the number of employees left after 34 were laid off and two agreed to retire in January. The Joint Budget Committee on Tuesday endorsed a plan to appropriate just under $18 million and increase the staff size to 282.
Sen. Gilbert Baker, R-Conway, co-chairman of the committee, noted that appropriations merely authorize spending and do not guarantee funds will be available.
“This is just appropriation today. If we can’t come up with the funding, nobody goes back to work,” Baker said.
Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said Tuesday that restoring firefighter jobs at the commission “is something we all want to see, but you have to have a funding source for it.”
John Shannon, the commission’s director, has proposed raising the state’s forest fire protection tax, which is paid by owners of private forest land, from 15 cents per acre to 20 cents per acre. The Arkansas Forestry Association supports raising the tax, which has not been raised since the early 1990s.
Baker told reporters after Tuesday’s hearing he believes a tax increase is unlikely to happen in the fiscal session.
Non-budget bills require a two-thirds vote in both chambers to be considered during a fiscal session. Raising the fire protection tax would require a three-fourths vote in both chambers for passage during any session.
“I just don’t sense that there’s much of a stomach for raising taxes” to boost the Forestry Commission’s funding, Baker said.
Senate Majority Leader Robert Thompson, D-Paragould, said that “you never say never, but I think it’s very unlikely that the Legislature would consider (a tax increase) during the fiscal session, especially since we don’t know what these audit findings are yet.”
State auditors are investigating the financial problems at the Forestry Commission and are scheduled to release a report on Feb. 10.
House Minority Leader John Burris, R-Harrison, said he didn’t think such a proposal would pass.
“No new taxes,” he said.
Baker said legislators are working on various ideas for funding the positions without raising any taxes.
Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, said he is working on a proposal to make “small cuts” at multiple agencies to pay for the jobs.
“I’ve identified some overlapping positions and some (spending) areas that probably could be considered wasteful,” he said.
Rep. Donna Hutchinson, R-Bella Vista, said she plans to file a bill to use $570,000 from the General Improvement Fund to rehire 14 laid-off Forestry Commission employees immediately.
“We can’t wait till July to hire these guys back. This has been a warm winter and it will probably continue to be warm,” increasing the fire risk, Hutchinson said.
DeCample said Beebe “continues to oppose using one-time money, whether it’s current surplus or current GIF, to fund ongoing salary needs.”
Beebe is expected to ask the Legislature to approve a supplemental appropriation of $2.7 million to get the Forestry Commission through the end of the current fiscal year and to repay federal grant money that the agency improperly spent on ongoing expenses, contributing to the $4 million budget shortfall that led to the layoffs.
None of the supplemental appropriation would go to restoring positions at the agency.
Some Joint Budget Committee members, including co-chairman Rep. Kathy Webb, D-Little Rock, voted Tuesday against adopting the subcommittee’s recommendation.
“I’m concerned about firefighters, but I think it wouldn’t hurt to wait two weeks until we have had much more in-depth discussion about where the money is going to come from,” Webb said.
Rep. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, said he voted “no” because he would prefer to wait until state auditors have completed their investigation.
“I just think it’s prudent to see the audit,” he said.
Shannon testified during the hearing that the agency has seen its budget and staff greatly reduced over the 18 years he has been director.
“We are not profligate spenders. The Forestry Commission screwed up in our bookkeeping during the last year or two,” he said.
Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, said on Twitter during the hearing, regarding Shannon: “Time to go!”