LITTLE ROCK — A legislative panel voted Thursday to recommend restoring 20 positions to the state Forestry Commission but did not recommend a way to fund the positions.

LITTLE ROCK — A legislative panel voted Thursday to recommend restoring 20 positions to the state Forestry Commission but did not recommend a way to fund the positions.

The forestry subcommittee of the Joint Budget Committee adopted the recommendation in a voice vote after the agency’s director, John Shannon, presented a proposal for filling 21 vacant or eliminated positions. Shannon laid off 34 people at the agency earlier this month, including 14 firefighters, because of a $4 million shortfall in the commission’s budget.

Shannon’s proposal included hiring a person to manage the agency’s federal grants, but the panel chose not to recommend that hire. The 20 positions that legislators recommended filling all relate to fire protection.

The recommendation goes to the Joint Budget Committee, which is scheduled to meet Tuesday.

Shannon said the 20 hires he wants to make would restore some of the positions that were eliminated in the layoffs and fill some positions that are vacant because of workers who left or retired and have not been replaced.

He proposed paying for the jobs by raising the state’s forest fire protection tax from 15 cents to 20 cents per acre, which he said would raise about $675,000 a year.

Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, co-chairman of the subcommittee, said the fiscal session that starts Feb. 13 is for budget issues only.

“We really can’t talk about a tax increase because that can’t happen until the legislative session in 2013,” she said.

Sen. Percy Malone, D-Arkadelphia, pointed out that the Legislature can consider non-budget bills in a fiscal session with a two-thirds majority vote of both chambers.

“I think that’s one of the items that should be on the table for discussion,” he said.

Irvin and the panel’s other co-chairman, Rep. Buddy Lovell, D-Marked Tree, both said after the meeting they did not believe a tax increase would receive legislative support during the fiscal session.

“It’d be pretty tough in an election year to raise taxes,” Lovell said.

But Lovell said the recommendation was not meaningless.

“If the entire Joint Budget (Committee) approves it, then it will send a message to the governor at least that the legislative Joint Budget Committee wants this to be funded,” he said.

The tax is part of the property taxes paid by owners of private forest land. Shannon said Thursday he believes landowners would be willing to pay a higher tax to be ensured of adequate fire protection.

Gov. Mike Beebe said Tuesday he would sign a fire-protection tax increase if the Legislature passes one. Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said Thursday it was unclear how legislators intended to pay for the positions if not through a tax increase.

“Mr. Shannon’s proposal was based on a new revenue source to pay for that. It’s kind of hard to have one without the other,” DeCample said. “So I guess we’ll see what legislators do next as far as trying to find that money.”

Shannon also told the committee he could fund four firefighter positions by cutting about $167,000 from the agency’s professional services budget. That possibility had been raised by legislators in a previous hearing.

Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, said he was disappointed that Shannon had not already made the cut.

“I am quite frankly shocked that before you laid off that many people you hadn’t looked to see where cuts could be made,” he said.

The subcommittee also recommended that the Forestry Commission be required to present monthly reports on all its financial activity to the state Department of Finance and Administration and the Legislature throughout the 2012-13 fiscal year.

Shannon and state finance officials have said the Forestry Commission’s $4 million shortfall occurred because the agency reacted to declining revenue from the state timber severance tax and timber sales by improperly using federal grant money for ongoing expenses. The agency also was counting the federal money twice, which inflated the amount of funding it appeared to have available.

The issue has prompted reviews by state auditors and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.