If Gov. Huckabee ever governs half as well as he generates headlines, he will be some leader.
But good headlines and good government aren't always consistent and the governor seems too often to confuse them. He's new and experience may make him wiser.
For what seems like the dozenth time, the governor last week pronounced state government to be out of control and announced he was going to stem the cancerous growth of the behemoth bureaucracy and slash people's taxes big time, by some $180 million.
It was magnificent theater. You couldn't fetch more crowd-pleasing themes than slashing runaway bureaucracy and taxes. But the truth is a little different. Arkansas still runs about the leanest government in America, the bureaucracy hasn't been exploding, and he isn't proposing big tax cuts.
If the governor's program passes intact in January, you'll pay considerably more in state taxes next year than this year. But you'll probably qualify for a new government entitlement program that he is proposing. If you apply for it you'll get a $25 check from a new million-dollar government office that he wants to establish to administer this new program to cut the waste from government.
Gov. Huckabee calls the entitlement program a tax cut, a rebate of some taxes that you paid. It will be the first time in Arkansas that a large new government office was set up to administer a tax cut.
That seems such a perverse irony because the governor says government has been growing out of control under the past two governors.
That would be hard to prove except by the mere fact that state tax collections during years of buoyant economic growth have grown substantially. Most of the money has been returned to hard-pressed local governments, mainly the public schools. The great growth in state spending the governor spoke of went mostly to three places: local schools, prisons and nursing home and medical care for the poor.
State and local taxes in Arkansas are still about the lowest per capita in America, the number and magnitude of services are among the lowest in the country, pay for teachers and government workers is about the lowest, its public infrastructure is one of the shabbiest, and the number of government workers the sprawling bureaucracy is near the bottom in ratio to the population.
Huckabee seems actually to believe his own florid words about the growth of the bureaucracy he now runs. But the figures are these: On July 1991, as Bill Clinton began his last term with a big tax program to benefit schools and highways, the number of state employees stood at 25,413. Five years later, on July 1, 1996, when Mike Huckabee took over, the payroll had enlarged to 28,078 workers, a growth of about 2,600.
Nearly half of the growth 1,200 workers was in corrections and law enforcement, the one area of government that Gov. Huckabee plans to expand significantly the next two years, not reduce. He plans a 20 percent increase in spending for the prisons. That does not include the money that will have to be spent to build new prisons to house the growing inmate population.
And what happened in the three big bureaucracies that fade the heat for growing like kudzu Human Services, Highways and the Education Department?
Although it had to administer new federal programs, including a nearly 100 percent increase in Medicaid payments mandated by federal law, Human Services actually shrank over five years by 500 employees, a decline of 6.5 percent.
The Highway and Transportation Department chopped its payroll by 105 employees over the five years.
The Education Department, which had oversight for new school standards and the administration of about $1.5 billion of aid to local schools, grew by 35 workers in five years. Vocational and technical education, did grow significantly, but it is viewed by the governor as a stepchild of education that needs more, not less, attention.
Still, owing to the tight budgeting by Gov. Jim Guy Tucker in 1993, the state ended up the past fiscal year with a surplus of nearly $100 million. While a government that hoards $100 million in a single year is hardly one that is out of control, the governor may make a small case that the state can afford to cut people's taxes if he is convinced that the state has met the needs of people.
But it ought to be a real tax cut, not political largesse. He proposes to take people's taxes as usual and then send out a small government check, conveniently near election time. A tax cut is when people get to keep their money. When people have to sign a form to prove their eligibility to a government bureau to receive a government check, that's an entitlement. Most people know the difference.
Print headline: "Huckabee: Expander of state government" December 13, 1996.