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Joint Budget Backs Restoring 20 Forestry Jobs But No Plan to Pay For It

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LITTLE ROCK – A legislative panel voted Tuesday to restore 20 firefighting jobs to the financially troubled Arkansas Forestry Commission, but it remains unclear how lawmakers plan to pay for the positions.

The Joint Budget Committee voted to include the proposal in the commission’s proposed budget bill being drafted for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The commission laid off 34 employees earlier this month to close a $4 million shortfall.

The proposal doesn’t identify a funding source for the nearly $636,000 needed to pay for the additional jobs. State Forester John Shannon has said the agency can fund four firefighter positions by cutting money out of another part of its budget.

Sen. Gilbert Baker, who co-chairs the budget panel, said the proposal gives lawmakers time to look at ways for funding the jobs as they prepare for the fiscal session that begins Feb. 13. Tuesday’s meeting was the final budget hearing before the session begins.

"We at least have a shot at creative minds coming together on funding," said Baker, R-Conway. "This is just an appropriation. We have to come up with funding or else no one goes back to work."

Shannon has proposed increasing the tax that private timberland owners pay as a way to fund the jobs, but Gov. Mike Beebe and legislative leaders from both parties have called the idea unrealistic. Shannon’s proposal would raise the fire protection tax from 15 cents an acre to 20 cents, but officials note that the additional money from that tax hike if approved wouldn’t be available late 2013.

Beebe, a Democrat, has said he’d sign the increase if it reaches his desk, but has said he doesn’t expect it to pass. Democrats, who control both chambers of the Legislature, also appeared to close the door on any tax hike talks by unveiling a set of principles for the upcoming session that called for not raising taxes.

The fiscal session is intended to consider budget matters, and non-budget bills such as a tax hike would take a two-thirds vote in both chambers to be introduced.

"I don’t see the fire protection tax being brought up during the fiscal session. That’s unlikely," said Sen. Robert Thompson, D-Paragould, the Senate majority leader.

Rep. Johnnie Roebuck of Arkadelphia, the top Democrat in the House, said she believed the tax hike was a last resort but said she didn’t think it could pass. Top Republicans have said they don’t support the tax hike.

Several lawmakers said they were looking for ways to pay for the jobs in other areas in Gov. Mike Beebe’s proposed $4.7 billion budget for the coming fiscal year, if not sooner. Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, said he had identified $730,000 in cuts from other agencies that could be used to pay for the jobs. Bell declined to identify the agencies he’s targeting. Bell said he’s also working with a group of lawmakers to find one-time money to pay for the additional positions for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Rep. Donna Hutchinson, R-Bella Vista, said she’ll propose using money from Beebe’s portion of a surplus fund for one-time projects to immediately rehire 14 firefighters and one dispatcher.

Shannon initially said the agency’s shortfall was due to a drop in timber sales, but state finance officials later said the agency had been improperly borrowing from federal funds to prop up its budget.

Beebe is expected to ask lawmakers to use $2.7 million from the state’s surplus to get the commission through the end of the year and to repay the federal funds.

Rep. Kathy Webb, who co-chairs the budget panel, voted against adding the jobs to the proposed budget and said she wanted to see what details come from a legislative audit of the commission expected to come out on Feb. 10.

"I’m concerned about the firefighters, but I don’t think it would hurt to wait two weeks until we have had much more in-depth discussion about where the money is going to come from," said Webb, D-Little Rock.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, broadcast or distributed.)

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