You probably missed it, but this week a small forest fire broke out at the state Capitol.

You probably missed it, but this week a small forest fire broke out at the state Capitol.

Not the sort of fire that required firefighters to rush in with water hoses — although it does involve them directly — but a political brush fire that managed to spin from a legislative subcommittee review of a small state agency all the way to the governor’s office.

It started when the Arkansas Forestry Commission put out word a couple weeks ago that the agency would have to lay off 36 employees in January, including about two dozen firefighters around the state. These forestry workers are a key component of stopping forest fires in Arkansas. They provide critical support to volunteer fire departments, particularly in rural counties.

For this reason, state legislators that represent these rural counties were especially stirred up at the sudden news of letting these employees go. Even tea party-leaning Republican state legislators such as Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, and Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, who normally seek to curtail the size of state government, were not pleased with the sudden layoff announcement.

“I completely support agencies downsizing to keep spending under revenue,” said Bell. “The issue in this case is whether or not the layoffs were necessary had the agency been properly managed and the Legislature and other interested parties been informed of the problem before it became critical.

“There are also questions as to the choice to lay off fire fighting personnel when other layoffs appear to be more appropriate to maintain the AFC mission.”

As the questions began coming in from state legislators, the blame game began. At first, Forestry Director John Shannon insisted that he was not aware of the financial problems until mid-November, as he had not been properly informed by his former fiscal chief, Robert Araiza.

Araiza’s account was different. Questioned by a Little Rock television reporter, Araiza insisted he had informed Shannon about the funding problems but that Shannon chose to do nothing. E-mail records and other documents appear to back up Araiza’s account.

Things grew even more heated when Araiza appeared before a subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council on Tuesday. According to him, not only was Shannon not listening but he told Forestry employees not to talk about the agency’s finance problems to anyone, including state legislators.

Even more stunning, Araiza claimed that the governor’s office canceled a meeting Shannon planned to discuss the shortfall with timber industry officials until after the 2010 election.

Later, Shannon told the committee gubernatorial liaison Kathy Holt had called and asked to cancel this meeting.

Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample acknowledged the meeting was canceled but he insisted the reason was because Beebe perceived that the public had no appetite for timber tax increases, not because the governor wanted no talk about politically sensitive budget problems in the middle of his re-election bid.

“Finding new revenue for the Forestry Commission for the future was the driver behind that meeting, not the severity of the current shortfall and depletion of the trust fund,” DeCample said. “If we had known that the commission was already to the point where they were no longer able to operate within their means, we would have addressed it during budget hearings and this year’s legislative session. When we did learn about it this fall, we took immediate action.”

The comment seems a bit odd. It is like saying the meeting was not about the house being on fire, but about the water needed to put it out.

I believe the governor when his office says he really did not know how severe Forestry’s fiscal problems were, but perhaps the meeting could have clued him in before the state had to make a Christmastime announcement about layoffs of firefighters.

Perhaps he could have prevented this forest fire from ever starting.

• • •

Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.