An interesting subtext in the battle between Republican presidential hopefuls has been the state tax record of the major candidates. Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee each have track records you can look at from their time as governors, and Rudy Giuliani ran the city of New York, which has a budget rivalling some states. And each of these three have drawn some flak from the others (most of it B.S.) for being "tax hikers" during the debates so far. But the developing story around Huckabee's record is by far the most interesting (and infuriating).
Critics of Huckabee are now painting him as a tax-and-spender because he signed into law (and expressed approval for) state tax increases during his tenure as governor of Arkansas. This is, on its face, pretty aggravating, because Huckabee had some pretty valid reasons for supporting tax hikes. In 2003, when the state legislature voted to temporarily increase the income tax and permanently increase the sales tax, Arkansas had essentially been told by the state's highest court that it was violating basic constitutional guarantees by not adequately funding K-12 education-- and that they had to fix this problem by coming up with more money for education.
Anyway, there are extenuating circumstances here, so it's quite simplistic to chastise Huckabee for being willing to consider tax hikes at a time when the state was basically flouting its own constitution.
In fact, as George Stephanopoulos noted in an interview with Huckabee on the morning talk shows this past Sunday, even if anti-taxers are correct in citing a basic disjunction between what Huckabee did as governor and what he says he'd do as president, they've actually got the problem backwards. The real question is not why he spent like a drunken sailor as governor and is holding the line on spending as a presidential candidate; the real question is why a guy who comes off, overall, as pretty reasonable on fiscal policy issues as a governor is willing to assert "no new taxes" today.
Here's the exchange from This Morning:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me move to your record on taxes in Arkansas, which is also coming under a lot of scrutiny and great criticism from this group called the Club for Growth, which is now starting to run ads in Iowa about your record. Here's part of it.
(Plays clip of Huckabee) "There's a lot of support for a tax at the wholesale level for tobacco, and that's fine with me. I will very happily sign that. Others have suggested a surcharge on the income tax. That's acceptable. I'm fine with that." (End clip)
STEPHANOPOULOS: And the tax burden in Arkansas did go up during your tenure from about $1,900 per person to $2,900 per person over 10 years and also an overall increase of about $500 million. So how do you plead to the charge of raising taxes?
MIKE HUCKABEE: Well, first of all, I plead to the charge of cutting taxes 94 times. I also recognize that the income tax was the same when I left office as it was when I started. The overall tax burden, according to the US Department of Commerce, state and local taxes in my state in the nearly 11 years I was governor went up by 1.1%....[T]hat was a put up or shut up moment as I spoke to the legislature. If you play that whole speech, what you would see is that the context was we were days away from a budget shutdown that would have closed the government in Arkansas. We had had an impasse on the budget.
I was taking various positions of here's how we can fix this budget crisis, and every time I said this might work, there would be a press conference by some of the Democrat legislators who were saying, well, if that's what the governor wants, we're against it. So what I did was go to the legislature and I said, okay, you don't like any of my plans, fine, let's come up with yours and I started listing what some of theirs were. And the context of that speech was you want a surcharge, you want a sales tax, okay, but we've got to have a budget, people. We've got to come up with a way to keep state government working. We've got people in nursing homes. We have schools to run. We have roads to take care of. And we can't afford a complete meltdown of the government.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But if that's the right...
HUCKABEE: So if you don't like my ideas, let's get yours out there.
STEPHANOPOULOS: If that's the right thing to do as governor when you're facing a crisis, why wouldn't it be the right thing to do as president? Now in this presidential campaign you've signed a pledge saying you wouldn't raise taxes under any circumstances.
HUCKABEE: Because I don't think the federal government needs more money. If you look at the spending issues that we have, it's pretty evident to me that we need some policy changes more than we need some tax changes at the federal level. So it's a different thing when you're running a state government and you have to balance your budget, you have to make sure that you're living within the means, and the second thing is, you're constantly barraged by federal programs pushed down your throat. That's why nearly every one of the governors, 43 governors, I believe, maybe 48 face serious budget shortfalls in '01/'02 because of the combination of the recession, federal mandates that were unfunded, as well as the impact and effects of 2000 - of 9/11.
In other words, Huckabee is saying it's OK to take irresponsible fiscal policy positions as a presidential candidate because, as we all know, federal policymakers don't have to live within their means.
Stephanopoulos goes a bit overboard here by criticizing Huckabee's allowing the per-capita tax load to increase during his watch-- after all, when per capita income goes up, per capita taxes will go up too, even if you don't change the tax system at all-- but on the narrow question of consistency, George has it exactly right: if there's mud to be slung at Huckabee for taking irresponsible fiscal policy positions, it's not what he said then, it's what he's saying now. No one who's willing to take a "no tax" pledge-- especially at a time of large, persistent budget deficits-- has any business running our country.
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