Arkansas lawmakers adjourn Session, leaving budget for state hunting, fishing programs in limbo

Arkansas lawmakers adjourned this year’s Session without approving a budget for the Game and Fish Commission on Thursday, putting the state’s hunting and fishing programs in limbo if the Legislature doesn’t return for a Special Session by July.

The House voted 62-21 in favor of the agency’s appropriation, which gives it the authority to spend more than $175 million in state and federal funds, falling short of the 75 votes needed to pass the legislation. The Senate approved the bill earlier this month.

The vote creates uncertainty about whether the 636-employee agency that oversees the state’s hunting, fishing and conversation programs will be able to operate when the fiscal year begins July 1. The commission, which issues hunting and fishing licenses, is primarily funded by a 1/8-cent sales tax approved by Arkansas voters in 1996.

“There’s 636 employees that work hard that we’ve got to think about,” Republican Rep. Lane Jean, who co-chairs the Joint Budget Committee, told the House before the vote. “Sometimes you’ve got to put your personal grief, your personal vendettas, your personal pride aside and do what’s right for the whole.”

Thursday’s vote marks the first time in more than 20 years lawmakers have adjourned without approving an agency’s budget. Standoffs over agency budgets aren’t uncommon, including past fights over the state’s Medicaid expansion, but they’re usually resolved.

Legislative leaders said they were confident the Game and Fish Commission would not shut down in July and expected its budget to get approved before then. The Legislature can only return if Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders calls a Special Session. Spokeswoman Alexa Henning didn’t say whether the Governor would call one but said “all options are on the table.”

The standoff over the agency’s budget stems primarily from objections to it proposing to raise the maximum salary of its director, Austin Booth, to $190,000 a year. Booth is currently paid $152,638 a year.

Commission Chair Stan Jones told lawmakers in a letter that Booth had never requested a raise and that increase was proposed to be “proactive” and remain competitive in case of a future director search. Jones promised lawmakers in a letter that Booth’s salary would not be increased to more than $170,000.

But that didn’t allay opponents who complained the bill wasn’t taken up earlier in the Session.

“We’re now put in this situation of emotional blackmail,” Republican Rep. Robin Lundstrum said.

The House vote frustrated Senate leaders, who moments later passed an amended version of the legislation capping Booth’s maximum salary at $157,216. It was a mostly symbolic move since the House had already adjourned.

“There will be a lot of concern from the people of Arkansas, which is why we stayed here to do anything we could to end up getting this budget passed,” Senate President Bart Hester told reporters.

The House also Thursday elected Republican Rep. Brian Evans to succeed House Speaker Matthew Shepherd next year. Shepherd has served as speaker since 2018. The Senate last week reelected Hester as its president.

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Republished with permission from The Associated Press.




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