Panel of lawmakers recommends restoring 20 firefighters to Arkansas Forestry Commission, but does not back proposal to fund positions by increasing landowners' fire protection tax
LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas
January 26, 2012
(The Associated Press)
– Lawmakers on Thursday recommended restoring 20 firefighters to the financially troubled Arkansas Forestry Commission, but declined to back a tax increase as a way to pay for the new jobs.
The recommendation from a panel formed to look at the agency's budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 doesn't include a proposal to pay for the positions. The commission laid off 34 workers earlier this month to close a $4 million shortfall.
The proposal, which goes before the Joint Budget Committee next week, doesn't recommend an increase in a tax that private forestland owners pay as a way to fund the jobs. State Forester John Shannon told lawmakers Thursday that raising the fire protection tax from 15 cents an acre to 20 cents could raise $675,000 a year and pay for 21 additional positions at the agency.
"If the money doesn't come, then it's nothing more than an appropriation," said Rep. Buddy Lovell, D-Marked Tree, co-chairman of the subcommittee. "If it's not funded, then the people don't come back to work."
The commission initially said its shortfall was caused by a drop in timber sales, but state officials later said the commission was improperly using federal funds to prop up its budget. Gov. Mike Beebe has asked lawmakers for $2.7 million from the state's surplus to repay the federal funds and to keep the commission operating through this year.
The layoffs left the 264-person agency with about 180 firefighters, and lawmakers said they're worried about the consequences of those cuts during wildfire season. The commission is in charge of conservation and fire protection throughout the state's forests.
Shannon told lawmakers that he could fund four firefighting positions by cutting nearly $167,000 from another part of his agency's budget, but said that the tax hike could pay for even more jobs.
That proposal was met by skepticism from lawmakers, who noted that it would take a two-thirds vote to even consider a tax increase during the fiscal session that begins Feb. 13. The fiscal session is intended to focus primarily on passing the state's budget, and non-appropriation bills require the two-thirds vote to be introduced.
"It just seems so impractical," said House Minority Leader John Burris.
Lovell and the committee's Republican co-chairwoman, Sen. Missy Irvin of Mountain View also said they believed passing such an increase was impossible due to the vote margin needed.
Shannon said that he has heard support from private landowners and the timber industry for the tax hike.
"I don't spend my time counting votes, but there appears to be a lot of support for providing fire protection and the only increase in revenue I've heard people talk about in a positive way is the forest fire protection tax," Shannon told reporters after Thursday's hearing. "I don't know if we can get on the agenda this session. I think it would be climbing a steep hill, and I'm not sure it would pass during the session, that might be a steep hill, but we're going to push a big rock up a steep hill."
Beebe's office said Thursday the governor isn't proposing a tax increase, but said he would sign one if lawmakers passed one.
"He's said from the beginning that raising a tax on an industry that was hit especially hard by the recession is going to be a tough sell," Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said. "However, if the legislature wants to propose one and they've got the support to pass one, he'll sign it."
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