Tuesday, July 06, 2010

EDITORIAL >> Would Huck lie to us?

Mike Huckabee, the Florida TV emcee, former and maybe future presidential wannabe and, yes, former governor of a poor, insular Southern state, was in Charlotte, N. C., Sunday for a July Fourth sermon at the First Baptist Church. The Charlotte Observer, the state’s largest newspaper, collared him before the service and published a long verbatim interview Monday.

He talked about how he would have handled the nation’s problems differently than George W. Bush and Barack Obama if he had been elected president or if they occur in the future when he is president. He would have allowed the banking system and U.S. automakers to crash, made people thrown out of their jobs go back to work by stopping unemployment checks and really done something about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We can’t possibly know what he would have done about any of those problems, so we wouldn’t quarrel with anything he said.

But we pay attention when Huckabee talks about the actual past and his own part in it. He has always needed a truth squad, not because his was such a terrible record (we like lots of it) but because he has a convenient memory. The Charlotte reporter asked him how he could get the support of the tea-party crowd in the next presidential race when he had raised taxes so much in Arkansas. Huckabee replied that he was the original tea-party guy. When he started running for president in 2007 and 2008, he said, he was criticized for the very things that form the tea-party message— cutting taxes and spending. (We recall no one who ever criticized him for cutting taxes and spending, and certainly none of his Republican opponents did.)

He boasted that he had balanced the state’s budget back in Arkansas and implied that it was something unusual and very hard to do. He continued: “I lowered more taxes than I ever was a part of raising. And I raised taxes only as a part of a court-ordered issue of dealing with an education crisis.”

True and not true. Huckabee balanced the state’s budget because every Arkansas governor has no choice. The state treasurer balances the budget automatically by stopping checks to state workers and suppliers when the state’s money runs out. That is the law. The governor’s role is to plan ahead and avoid the cataclysm by ordering reductions in spending across the board well ahead so that the fiscal year ends smoothly. Or else the governor can ask the legislature to raise taxes to cover the revenue gap.

You will recall the series of sharp budget cuts that Gov. Mike Beebe ordered last year and this year to adjust spending to sharply declining tax revenues. How did Huckabee handle the same situation in 2003? He assembled the legislature in special session for a 3 percent surtax on individual and corporate incomes. That was a gutsy thing to do in hard times, but it is not a tea-party value.

Far more tax cuts than tax increases? Taxes were cut twice under Huckabee. In 1997, Democrats in the legislature proposed a sweeping income-tax cut planned by the former governor, Jim Guy Tucker, before he was forced to resign. It was the Democratic Party’s highest legislative priority in 1997 and every Democrat in the House signed on as a sponsor. The Democrats passed it and Huckabee did not veto it. As time passed and memories faded, Huckabee began to claim the tax cut as his idea, though rarely while he was in Arkansas. He did later support a reduction in taxes on income from stocks, bonds and other investments, the rich man’s tax. That is the extent of his tax-cutting record.

His tax increases are the largest in Arkansas history. For the record, here are the rest of his tax increases: a 1/8th of 1 percent increase in the sales tax for recreational programs in 1998 (he rode a bass boat down the Arkansas River to solicit support for the tax), an increase in the general sales tax by one-half of 1 percent in 1999, an increase in the sales tax of 7/8ths of 1 percent in 2003, a 2 percent tax on tobacco products in 1997, a 7 percent excise tax on tobacco in 2003, a higher tax on cigarette and tobacco permits in 1997, an increase in cigarette and tobacco taxes in 1997, a 25-cent-a-pack tax on cigarettes in 2003, a 3 percent excise tax on retail beer sales in 2001 (continued in 2003 and 2005), a 4 percent tax on mixed drinks and private clubs in 2005, an increase in the gasoline tax of 3 cents a gallon in 1999, an increase of 4 cents a gallon in the tax on diesel in 1999 (No, Arkansas voters never approved the gasoline and diesel taxes as Huckabee repeatedly insisted in 2008) and an increase in drivers’ license fees from $14 to $20 in 2001.

The Supreme Court did not direct the state to raise taxes for the schools, as Huckabee suggested at Charlotte. The court said the state needed to follow its Constitution and provide an equal and suitable education to all its children. Higher taxes and school consolidation were Huckabee’s ways to do that. Texas met the same kind of mandate entirely differently, but we thought Huckabee had it about right. If he doesn’t think he can brag about his fiscal record in a Republican milieu, at least he can be truthful. People like that in a politician.

We sometimes think that it is good that Huckabee renounced his Arkansas home and took up official residency in Florida, even if it is for tax purposes. Otherwise, Arkansas might get a reputation for shading the truth. We don’t need that. Thankfully, that’s Florida’s problem now.