LITTLE ROCK — The state Forestry Commission voted Monday to endorse a legislative panel's recommendation to restore 20 positions at the agency.
LITTLE ROCK — The state Forestry Commission voted Monday to endorse a legislative panel’s recommendation to restore 20 positions at the agency.
In a special meeting held via teleconference, commissioners endorsed the recommendation made last week by the forestry subcommittee of the Joint Budget Committee. The commission met one day ahead of a scheduled meeting of Joint Budget in which the committee is scheduled to review the subcommittee’s recommendation.
The Forestry Commission laid off 34 employees earlier this month because of a $4 million shortfall in the agency’s budget. Two other employees agreed to retire. The 20 positions recommended for restoration include 18 firefighters and two mechanics who work on firefighting equipment.
“I think they’re on the right trail,” said Commissioner Aubra Anthony of El Dorado.
The agency’s director, John Shannon, had proposed the restoration of 21 jobs, but the legislative subcommittee declined to recommend hiring a financial expert to handle the commission’s federal grants.
The subcommittee also did not recommend a proposal by Shannon to raise the state’s forest fire protection tax from 15 cents per acre to 20 cents per acre to fund the jobs. The subcommittee did not recommend any funding source.
Chairman Allen Bedell of Hot Springs said after the meeting he favors raising the tax, which is paid annually by private owners of forest land and has not been raised since the early 1990s.
“Personally, I think that’s the exact way that we’re going to have to look at funding and getting funding for the commission in the future,” he said.
But Bedell acknowledged that there is “an anti-tax sentiment” in the Legislature.
Gov. Mike Beebe has said he would sign an increase in the tax if legislators pass one, but he has expressed doubts that they would.
Shannon said Monday the agency can fund four positions by shifting money within its budget. He said Sevier and Conway counties will get two firefighters each because they are the counties with the greatest need.
If more money becomes available, other positions will be filled wherever they are needed most, he said.
The Legislature will convene for a fiscal session on Feb. 13. Non-budget bills can only be considered with a two-thirds vote in both chambers.
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 shortfall.