LITTLE ROCK — A 5-cent increase in the state forestry tax would provide additional funding to bolster the Arkansas Forestry Commission’s firefighting program under legislation filed Monday.
The bill by Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, would increase the state tax on timber lands from 15 cents to 20 cents per acre, beginning with assessments for the 2013 tax year, to raise special revenues for maintenance operation and improvement of the commission’s statewide program for detection, prevention and suppression of forest fires.
Sample said the extra 5 cents per acre would generate about $700,000 annually.
Gov. Mike Beebe said Monday he supports the proposal and would sign the bill if approved.
"It’s needed," Beebe told reporters at the Capitol. "You saw that the Forestry Commission does great work, but it also costs a lot of money when they get into a huge fire season and they need additional revenue to meet the obligations."
Amid scorching heat and a relentless drought that produced one of the busiest wildfire seasons in years, state Forester Joe Fox told a legislative panel last summer that the agency would seek about $1.9 million in additional funding this year to restore 20 positions, 13 of them firefighters, and cover other expenses.
Sample told reporters Monday he filed the bill at the request of the Forestry Commission.
"We all know how desperately their services are (needed) and so that’s why we’re running this bill," he said.
He acknowledged that passing the tax increase would be difficult this year in a Legislature controlled by fellow GOP lawmaker, many of whom ran on a no-tax pledge last year.
Sample said he did not sign the anti-tax pledge circulated by Americans for Tax Reform.
"To me the anti-tax pledge is one of the most irresponsible things that a legislator can do," he said.
The Forestry Commission’s current operating budget is just over $18 million. During the 2012 fiscal session nearly a year ago, the Legislature approved a request by Beebe for a supplemental appropriation of $2.7 million for the commission to cover payroll through June 30 and repay money the agency borrowed — improperly, according to state finance officials — from federal grant funds.
The borrowing occurred under former forester John Shannon.
Shannon laid off 34 employees of the agency in January 2012 because of a $4 million shortfall. Beebe later directed the state Department of Agriculture to shift enough funds to the commission to restore 20 positions. Shannon resigned in February. Beebe appointed Fox to replace Shannon in April.
Larry Boccarosa, executive director of the Arkansas Timber Producers Association, did not immediately return a telephone call for comment Monday afternoon. The group has opposed a timber tax hike in the past.