Politics & Government

Huckabee has mixed record on taxes

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Gerald Herbert / AP

WASHINGTON — Mike Huckabee was an early signer of the Republicans' no-tax-hikes pledge, and he's campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination by touting the 90 different taxes he cut as the governor of Arkansas.

He doesn't mention how, during his 10 and a half years as governor, he presided over $505 million worth of tax increases. Sales taxes were raised. So were gasoline taxes, and the per-capita tax burden on the state's residents grew by about 50 percent.

"He always talked against taxes, but he wanted all these spending programs," former Democratic state Rep. Boyd Hickinbotham said. "So he'd treat taxes like a rotten egg. He'd hold his nose, but he liked being able to spend the money."

Richard Weiss, who ran the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration for eight years of Huckabee's administration and heads it today under a Democratic governor, has a different view. Huckabee, he said, "reacted to the times and the issues. He put the state first."

Huckabee's fiscal record doesn't lend itself to one-word, bumper-sticker politics, said Janine Perry, the director of the Arkansas Poll. His record, she said, is "somewhere in the middle between his opponents' charges and his defense."

Huckabee, whose campaign didn't respond to requests for comment, was the governor of Arkansas from July 1996 until last January, and he was in the same position as almost every other governor in the United States: The state constitution required him to balance the budget each year.

In the late 1990s, as the nation's and Arkansas' economies boomed, that wasn't difficult, and Huckabee presided over substantial tax cuts. In 1997 and 1998, state lawmakers approved $97.9 million in income-tax relief, and another $14.1 million in smaller tax breaks.

About 65 of Huckabee's 90 tax reductions were enacted from 1997 to 1999. The centerpiece was $90.6 million annually in individual income-tax breaks, but most of the cuts were small and highly specialized.

Among them: exempting residential lawn care from the gross receipts tax, a Salvation Army sales-and-use-tax exemption and an exemption for sales of biomass to produce electricity.

Huckabee came to Washington in 1999 and boasted about his record. "The big battle was no longer, 'Which taxes will we raise and by how much?' but 'Which taxes will we cut and by how much?' " he told the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center.

"To shift the mentality of the legislators — to change the paradigm, if you will — was singularly, I think, the most significant thing that has happened (in Arkansas) in the past two and a half years."

But as the economy soured early this decade, Huckabee found himself in the same situation as many other chief executives: Massive spending cuts weren't enough to balance the budget, so he had to find new revenue.

The State Supreme Court handed him another problem when it ruled that Arkansas' education-funding system wasn't meeting student's needs and had to be revamped.

So in 2003, Huckabee had a very different message. In his State of the State speech that year, he warned lawmakers that, "If you deem that all new revenue sources, your proposals or mine, are indeed dead on arrival, then you'll be saying that teacher pay increases are dead, scholarships are dead, medicine for the elderly is dead, that long sentences are dead and that we'll have a massive early release of thousands of inmates from the (prison) system."

His proposals included a five-eighths of a cent increase in the sales tax. After months of wrangling, the legislature approved increasing the sales tax by seven-eighths of a cent to pay for education, a measure designed to raise $378 million that fiscal year.

Hickinbotham, then the chairman of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, was highly critical of Huckabee, saying that while he wanted the education changes, he never actively suggested ways to fund them.

"He never knocked on my door," Hickinbotham said in an interview this week.

Huckabee, who was upset because he thought the increase didn't include sufficient school revisions, let the bill become law without his signature.

But Weiss, who headed the state's revenue agency, countered that Huckabee wasn't reluctant to raise taxes if he thought it was necessary.

"These people who say you should never raise taxes are plain nuts," Weiss said.

Huckabee's tax record is coming under increasing fire during the presidential campaign, particularly as he's beginning to be regarded as a more serious candidate. Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, for instance, charges that "He was a very high-tax governor."

Activist groups are divided on whether Huckabee is a true-blue tax cutter.

Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, which sponsors the no-tax pledge, called Huckabee's tenure as governor "problematic in terms of tax and spending," but said it shouldn't necessarily be used to gauge how he'd act as president.

"My position is that the Roman Catholic Church maintains market share by accepting converts," Norquist said, "and the anti-tax movement needs to take elected officials and say because you've done something problematic in the past doesn't mean you can't commit."

Huckabee also gets a warm reception from Americans for Fair Taxation, which is pushing for a "fair tax," which would replace all income and Social Security taxes with a national retail-sales tax.

"Whatever his record, anyone who advocates for the fair tax is definitely a tax cutter and a tax reformer," said Ken Hoagland, Americans for Fair Taxation spokesman.

But David Keating, the executive director of the Club for Growth, a low-tax advocacy group, is sharply critical of Huckabee's record.

"He didn't even try to stop the tax increases," Keating said. "He could have vetoed it (tax increases). He could have gone directly to the people."

Perry, who's also a political science professor at the University of Arkansas, argued that Huckabee's choices weren't that simple. Arkansas' legislature is dominated by Democrats, she said, and a simple majority can override a governor's vetoes.

"He is not an anti-government Republican, and to get things done, he knew he had to play ball," she said.

Like most governors, she said, Huckabee had to build coalitions to make the state work, and his re-election margins are evidence that the tax increases had widespread popular support.

In 2002, for instance, state voters soundly defeated a bid to repeal taxes on food and medicine.

In October 2003, the Arkansas Poll asked state residents how they felt about increasing taxes to fund education improvements. Forty-one percent said they approved of higher sales taxes, while 57 percent disapproved. But they were only slightly more enthusiastic about cutbacks in other services: 49 percent approved and 42 percent didn't.

"People saw education as the most important function of government," Perry said. Huckabee, she said, understood that, and understood his state.

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