A legislative subcommittee on Monday recommended the release of $2.2 million to county and district fairs to help them recover losses sustained last year during the coronavirus pandemic.
The recommendation by the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) Subcommittee now goes to the Legislative Council on Friday. The Legislative Council conducts the General Assembly's business when it is not in session.
"There are still some fairs out there struggling pretty hard," Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, said. Cozart was the House sponsor of Senate Bill 398, by Sen. Ron Caldwell, R-Wynne, to get the emergency funding to the fairs.
County and district fairs will receive about $30,000 each under the plan.
Cozart said by telephone later he expects the Legislative Council to approve the release without any problems. "This is something the House widely supported and I suspect almost everybody in the Senate does too," Cozart, a longtime member of the Garland County Fair Board, said.
SB 398 is now Act 892, approved unanimously in the 35-member Senate and 89-0 in the House, where four members voted present and seven did not vote.
Cozart said the money had been promised to the fairs but got held up in the effort to retain a budget surplus. "Senator Caldwell and I worked pretty hard for about a year in getting the fairs this much-needed money," Cozart, a longtime member of the Garland County Fair Board, said.
Numerous fairs last year canceled their carnivals -- the lifeblood of fairs because they drive admissions paid at the gate. Many fairs limited attendance at livestock shows to exhibitors and their relatives, moved the shows online, or canceled them altogether. Some fair associations with rental space had to cancel community events, weddings and reunions because of state restrictions on crowds, losing that income as well.
In some cases, carnival companies shut themselves down because it wasn't practical or profitable to load amusement rides based on the state's social-distancing requirements and to sanitize the rides after every use.
The last of the 2021 county and district fairs are being held this month, with the Arkansas State Fair and Livestock Show, set for Oct. 15-24 in Little Rock, closing the season.
Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward and the state Department of Agriculture requested that the $2.2 million be released from the state's restricted reserve fund. Ward told lawmakers that the $30,000 to the fairs is "direct funding ... so there won't have to be a demonstration of loss."
"The appropriation was requested because of the coronavirus and the effect it has had on county and district fairs," Ward said.
Ward said the department will be able to release the money fairly quickly if the Legislative Council gives its approval. "We distributed the usual fair funding back in July so the fairs' direct deposit [information] is on hand," he said. "We could turn that around very quickly once we get approval."
The appropriation had been held in the state's restricted reserve fund that could be used with the Legislature's approval for extraordinary needs in an economic downturn and to help finance future tax cuts. The fund was part of Gov. Asa Hutchinson's budget proposal released in 2018 and eventually approved by the General Assembly.