Columns » Ernest Dumas

Huck: the 'right' stuff

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Gov. Huckabee finished far back in the pack in the Republican straw poll for president at the party’s midterm convention at Memphis, but you should not count him out yet. He showed that in the skill that seems to matter most in 2006 he could compete with the best.

That is the ability to say one thing, do the opposite and get credit for both.

From Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Sen. John McCain, the real frontrunner, on down to Huckabee, all the presidential aspirants masqueraded as fiscal conservatives, diehard champions of limited government. They are all for reduced spending and balanced budgets. None of them can make a convincing case that they’ve advanced those causes, although McCain occasionally makes a rare show of independence from President Bush and his party majority in the Senate on some budgetary extravagance.

How can you blame them for the subterfuge? They saw how it worked for George W. Bush. He ran for president championing a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget but then apparently listened to his vice president, Dick Cheney, who famously said, “deficits don’t matter.” By the end of his presidency, with the help of a solidly Republican Congress, Bush will have added more to the national debt than the three previous presidents combined.

Gov. Huckabee played no role in that, of course, unless you count the expanded federal spending on Medicaid that his activism in Arkansas occasioned. And if you discount his gay-bashing and anti-abortion talk, he is a different kind of Republican than most of them. His stewardship of state government would fit the old liberal Republican mold, a timid version of Winthrop Rockefeller. He has raised taxes, expanded government and loaded debt on future taxpayers to a considerably greater degree than perhaps any governor in Arkansas history although for purposes that on any given occasion a substantial part of the public finds acceptable.

When they do another of those surveys of historians and political scientists on the most effective Arkansas governors he can make a good case that he should be up there with Rockefeller, Bumpers, Clinton, McMath and Donaghey, all of whom raised taxes and enlarged the services of government. Huckabee did not lead the way on every one of the advancements during his tenure as the others did, but he went along with them.

But he won’t make any conservative’s list of effective governors. That is why there was more than a little hypocrisy in the governor’s speech at Memphis.

“I still believe the American people agree with us on the idea of less government intrusion, less government tax burden and a real level of true security,” Huckabee told the delegates. Never mind that the present national government is for greater intrusion into private lives.

But let’s look at Huckabee’s record.

He took credit for the first tax cut in Arkansas in decades and ridiculed those who had claimed that it would damage the state budget.

You would think he meant Democrats, wouldn’t you?

The tax cut he spoke of was Act 328 of 1997, which was enacted shortly after he took office. The tax cut was drafted by Democratic lawmakers and passed without one dissenting vote in the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. It was 96-0 in the House of Representatives. The outlines of the reduction in individual income taxes actually belonged to Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who was forced to resign before he could implement it. The taxes benefited mostly working families with low and modest incomes, unlike all the tax cuts of the Bush administration, which were directed almost altogether to the rich and corporations. Huckabee is right to be proud of it although he did not draft a word of it.

And it was not the first tax cut in decades. Bill Clinton had income taxes eliminated on families earning below the federal poverty line in 1991, and numerous tax cuts affected groups like farmers and veterans. Dale Bumpers had cut taxes on low-income workers in 1973.

But what Huckabee did not tell the delegates because they might have drummed him out of the hall was that the small tax cut of 1997 was quickly overwhelmed by a string of tax increases that landed squarely on working families: a 3 percent income tax surcharge that lasted for two years, three increases in the sales tax that totaled one and a half pennies on a dollar sale, the expansion of the sales tax to cover a number of services like laundry, dry cleaning and wrecker services, a 4-cent-a-gallon increase in the diesel tax, 3 cents a gallon on the gasoline tax, a 3 percent tax on beer, a 25-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes, a 7 percent increase in the excise tax on other tobacco products and a $6 increase in the driver’s license.

Smaller government? Since Huckabee took office, the number of state government workers has swollen by 20 percent, from 43,753 in June 1996 to 52,440 this January. The state’s general-obligation debt has risen by some $800 million — more than the debts accumulated under all previous governors — and voters in December scuttled Huckabee’s plan to add a couple hundred million dollars more.

That does not mean that the state did not progress as a result of much of it, but lower taxes and limited government?

Our governor is shrewd enough in the ways of the world to know that those are only what a Republican promises. Facts are another matter.




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