by Max Brantley
Robert Araiza, the fiscal officer who said he repeatedly was ignored when he tried to tell his superior of declining money at the Arkansas Forestry Commission, is telling a panel of legislators today that he was told to shut up about it until after the 2010 elections, on orders he traced to Gov. Mike Beebe.
The depletion of Forestry reserves because of a decline in severance tax revenue has forced a layoff of 36 employees and legislators aren't happy. Some also see a chance to score points against the Beebe administration. Beebe has defended state forester John Shannon. Araiza has moved to another state agency.
More when I have some to link. The governor's office says it is waiting for completion of all testimony for a full comment, but said the allegation about orders from Beebe to cover the matter up is untrue.
The sense of various Twitter accounts is that Republican legislators are trying to portray this as a Beebe coverup and Democratic legislators are putting at least some of the blame on Araiza for failing to blow the whistle. There is a whistle blower law, but ....
Shannon praises Araiza, takes the blame for agency problems and says he never told any staff member not to talk to a legislator. But he did say HE would want to talk to the governor's chief of staff first. Shannon said there'd be closer oversight in the future and no more borrowing to meet payroll. He also says declining tax receipts dictate a different look at funding of the agency. Yes.
I hope it's true that Araiza is a crack accountant and straight shooter because he's joined a state department, specifically the Rehabilitation Services Division of Bill Walker's Career Services Department, which could use some stringent oversight of its real estate expansion and executive office improvement plans. I'm thinking of sending him a whistle by FedEx.
UPDATE: Matt DeCample, Beebe's spokesman said the office had encouraged the Forestry Commission not to hold a meeting before the 2010 election to discuss in general a future increase in the severance tax on timber. "We advised them that having a discussion about new taxes in the middle of the election cycle would not be productive, especially given the strong anti-tax climate. It was not a meeting, as has been implied, to discuss the current revenue shortfall and rapid depletion of the trust fund. If we'd known the severity of that issue it would have been discussed during budget hearings for the 2011 legislative session. We didn't learn that until this fall and when we did we took action."
So here's the key question for the Republican legislators suddenly broken out with concern about 36 laid-off state employees — generally dismissed at layabout slackers who spend most of their time thinking up ways to double-dip and otherwise waste tax money. If Republicans had known sooner of the problem, would they have pushed to raise the severance tax? Or pushed to lay off workers? Or called in Kreskin to pull dollar bills out of a top hat?
DeCample said there'd clearly been a miscommunication. But the bigger question is what to do now. He said the governor was ready to meet with legislators about solutions. Severance tax increase, Rep. Burris. Or stick with the layoffs?