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The budget for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is in jeopardy as the legislature adjourns



Little Rock, Arkansas – Without passing a budget for the Game and Fish Commission, Arkansas lawmakers adjourned their current session on Thursday, leaving the state’s hunting and fishing programs in limbo until they reconvene in a special session by July.

The House fell short of the 75 votes needed to pass the Act, voting 62-21 in favor of the agency’s allocation, granting it the ability to spend over $175 million in federal and state dollars. This month, the law was adopted by the Senate.

The vote casts doubt on the ability of the 636-person department in charge of the state’s hunting, fishing, and conversation programs to continue operations on July 1st, the first day of the fiscal year. The commission, which grants permits for hunting and fishing, is mostly supported by a 1/8-cent sales tax that voters in Arkansas approved 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.”

With this vote on Thursday, Congress would have adjourned without passing an agency’s budget for the first time in almost 20 years. Although they are occasionally resolved, standoffs over agency budgets—including previous disputes over the state’s Medicaid expansion—are not unusual.

“We’re an unprecedented, unchartered water,” Lt. Gov. Leslie Rutledge said. “Where you have one body of the legislature, adjourned… without all of the business being taken up.”

Leaders in Congress expressed confidence that the Game and Fish Commission would not close in July and anticipated that its budget would be approved prior to that date. The only way the Legislature can reconvene is if Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas calls a special session. While saying that “all options are on the table,” spokeswoman Alexa Henning did not specify whether the governor will issue a call.

Opposition to the agency’s plan to increase head Austin Booth’s maximum pay to $190,000 annually is the main cause of the budget impasse. Booth’s annual salary is currently $152,638.

In a letter to legislators, Commission Chair Stan Jones stated that Booth had never asked for a raise and that the rise was being offered as a “proactive” measure to keep him competitive in the event that a director search was needed down the road. In a letter to lawmakers, Jones guaranteed that Booth’s pay would not go above $170,000.

However, opponents who had protested that the law hadn’t been discussed earlier in the session were unimpressed.

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

Senate leaders were displeased with the House vote and, shortly after, modified the bill to cap Booth’s maximum compensation at $157,216. Given that the House had already adjourned, the action was largely ceremonial.

“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.

Also on Thursday, the House chose Republican Representative Brian Evans to be the next Speaker of the House, replacing Matthew Shepherd. Shepherd assumed the role of speaker in 2018. Hester was re-elected as Senate President last week.


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