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Arkansas lawmakers gather on first day of special session

The Arkansas House of Representatives gathers on the first day of a special session, Monday.
Josie Lenora
Little Rock Public Radio
The Arkansas House of Representatives gathers on the first day of a special session, Monday.

The Arkansas Legislature advanced new tax cuts and funding for the Game and Fish Commission on Monday, the first day of a special legislative session. Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the session last week, saying “additional tax reductions can be enacted to provide further tax relief during this period of heightened inflation under ‘Bidenomics.’” This comes after the legislature adjourned a fiscal session in May without funding the commission.

Game & Fish Commission Budget

The Arkansas Legislature passed a Game and Fish budget bill through committee after a round of committee hearings on Monday amid ongoing controversy over the director’s salary.

Game and Fish Director Austin Booth previously had a salary of $152,638. During this year’s fiscal legislative session, Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, put forward an amendment on the Game and Fish budget to change the salary cap to $190,000.

Booth said it's “not his place” to comment on Sen. Rice’s decision.

When it was proposed, many legislators felt that this potential salary increase was too much money. Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, also accused the commission of waiting too long to fill out their budget paperwork. Booth denies this allegation, saying they submitted their budget paperwork on the first day of the session. In May, lawmakers adjourned the fiscal session without funding the department, placing Game and Fish over $100 million in the hole.

Booth says this lack of funding kept him and his colleagues “up at night.”

“The 700 employees that we have would lose their job, lose their paycheck and their health insurance coverage,” he said.

Booth said the department has been planning different contingencies in case they lost the money. Game and Fish also has a hatchery system with 14 to 17 million fish.

“We have people that live out on the hatcheries with the fish to keep 24/7 supervision of the fish out there,” he said. “With a lapse in appropriation, those people would be without a job, and also without a place to live.”

If the budget had not gone through, Booth says the commission would have been forced to kill 7 to 9 million fish using the chemical compound rotenone. They would have also lost additional revenue from fees for hunting and fishing licenses since they would not have been able to keep that software up and running.

The new budget bill will fund Booth’s salary at a maximum of $170,000. He would need approval from a legislative committee to get a raise of over 5% or more than $158,742 a year.

“I am absolutely fine with it,” Booth said of the new salary. “The biggest objective for me has been increased trust for the legislature.”

In a committee meeting, Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, said he wanted to compromise “to find some success for Game and Fish,” adding he doesn't want this to be the norm for the commission.

Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, said he wanted to admonish the legislature over the whole situation.

“I hope we never come back to this point,” he said. “I hope commissioners build relationships with members.”

The budget went through two different committees in less than an hour Monday, and faces a vote from the full Senate at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

Tax Cuts

Cutting the state’s individual and corporate income taxes is the second stated goal of the special session. If passed, it would mark the third time since the beginning of 2023 that Arkansas lawmakers have slashed tax rates.

A pair of identical tax cut bills passed through their respective committees Monday with little debate or dissent from lawmakers and members of the public. Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 1001 would decrease Arkansas’ top individual income tax rate from 4.4% to 3.9%, and the state’s top corporate income tax rate from 4.8% to 4.3%.

The bills would also set aside $290 million from the state’s general revenues to be used in case the loss in state dollars stemming from the tax cuts would lead to an interruption in government services.

A common refrain from Republican lawmakers, including the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Les Eaves, R-Searcy, is that Arkansas’ consistent budget surpluses mean the state is taxing its residents too much.

“I would say that Arkansas can’t continue to see $700, $800, $900 million surpluses and not think that we’re not over-collecting from our citizens,” Eaves said, adding the state has had a surplus every year for roughly the past decade.

Critics of the tax cuts have noted Arkansas’ recent budget surpluses have been bolstered by one-time federal funding related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the current slate of cuts would reduce general revenue by nearly $500 million in fiscal year 2025.

Keesa Smith Brantley, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, was the lone member of the public to speak against the cuts in committee meetings Monday, arguing the state’s dollars would be better spent on programs to boost literacy, healthcare and the overall wellbeing of residents.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that there’s not programs within state government that don’t run as efficiently as necessary and that can’t have better results, but there are several programs that have been either cut, or they have been funded flatly,” she said.

Lawmakers, including Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, and Sen. John Payton, R-Wilburn, disagreed, saying returning tax dollars to citizens is a wiser investment.

Both bills will face floor votes in their respective chambers Tuesday before going back into committee.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.
Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.