(CNSNews.com) - As he battles to try to win his party's nomination for president, Republican Mike Huckabee is being challenged by some critics, mostly fiscal conservatives, who are critical of the tax policies he pursued as governor of Arkansas.
At last weekend's debate in New Hampshire, Gov. Mitt Romney asked Huckabee, "Did you raise taxes in your state by half-a-billion dollars?" Huckabee did not directly answer the question and instead turned the topic to education and budget reform.
In November, Huckabee repeatedly defended his record, calling himself a "fiscal conservative" and pointing out that he had cut taxes 90 times as governor.
"The income tax remained exactly what it was," he said in a debate on Nov. 28. "The sales tax is one penny higher. I did do a number of tax cuts that helped people all over the place, like eliminating the marriage penalty, doubling the child care tax credit, getting rid of capital gains on the sale of a home, cutting capital gains on other things."
But according to data compiled for Cybercast News Service by Stephen Slivinski, director of budget studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, the tax hikes Huckabee supported between 1997 and 2007 were far heftier than his tax cuts. (Slivinski compiled his report from tax records available at the bi-partisan National Conference of State Legislatures.)
The numbers show that taxes increased at an average of $15 per person per fiscal year during Huckabee's tenure (1996-2007). The net tax cuts supported by Huckabee from fiscal years 1997 to 2007 totaled $222 million, while net tax increases supported or unopposed by Huckabee totaled $864 million.
The net increase in taxes supported by Huckabee, therefore, equaled $642 million. With a population slightly declining - from 2.7 million in 1997 to 2.5 million in 2007 - net taxes collected in Arkansas rose by more than $3 billion during Huckabee's gubernatorial tenure.
In the early months of 1996 leading up to the special election to determine the replacement for Gov. James Guy Tucker, Jr. - who had resigned after his conviction for a Whitewater-related crime - interim Gov. Huckabee staked his campaign on promises of lower taxes for Arkansas, especially the elimination of a grocery tax he described as unfair to the poor.
"Either we will exert the leadership to make that happen or it will be exerted by the people. It's going to happen," Huckabee promised voters.
But six months into the term, Huckabee - citing stiff opposition from the Democrat-controlled state legislature and concerns there would not be funds for education, Medicaid, and health insurance for poor children - took his tax cuts off the table.
Two days after his decision to drop the grocery tax rebate, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette published a poll, which showed 66 percent of voters supported the grocery tax repeal.
In Huckabee's biography on his campaign Web site and in debates for the GOP presidential nomination, he has frequently cited his success in decreasing the Arkansas state income tax. The biography describes him as the governor who brought forth "the first major, broad-based tax cuts in state history."
When Huckabee took over from Tucker, he spoke of tax reform as a central pillar of his campaign for re-election. He often said then: "If I give something out of my pocket for your needs, that's charity. If I take out of your pocket and give it to someone else - in the old days, that was called theft."
Within days of winning the special election on July 15, 1996, however, Huckabee supported a tax to assist the Arkansas State Park System.
"The ability to take a kid out into the woods and let him see nature, the ability to catch a 5/4-pound bass on the end of a line out in the Arkansas River - I don't know what those things do for you, but they rev my engine and really charge my batteries," Huckabee said in explaining his decision.
Also in 1996, despite his opposition to a tax targeted at the soft drink industry, Huckabee abstained from supporting the tax's repeal in early 1997. Huckabee said he would not support phasing out the tax unless the $39 million in revenue that was allocated towards Medicaid could somehow be replaced.
Repeated calls to the Huckabee campaign for comment on this story were not returned.
Despite the tax hikes, Huckabee succeeded in pushing through several large tax cuts as governor, including an $80 million tax-cut package in 1997 and several other smaller cuts.
But his opposition to the soft drink tax repeal, surrender on the grocery tax repeal, opposition to a tax break for higher education and to proposals to cut the state income tax are items that critics today, particularly fiscal conservatives, note as negatives.
By fiscal year 1998, two years into Huckabee's gubernatorial tenure, Arkansas state expenditures had risen $234 million above the budget of the year before.
Ken Hoagland, spokesman for Americans for Fair Taxation, whose plan to eliminate the income tax was endorsed by Huckabee in 2007, said despite the accusations against Huckabee by the conservative Club for Growth and other GOP candidates, his group believes that Huckabee will be faithful to his commitment to implement their plan.
"I believe he is very sincere" Hoagland told Cybercast News Service. "Because Mike Huckabee has made this a central plank of his campaign, he is very sincere about pushing it if he is elected president."
But Nachama Soloveichik, communications director for the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, is skeptical.
"He is attempting to tell economic conservatives that he agrees with them but his record paints a different picture," Soloveichik said of Huckabee. "He raised taxes more than he cut them as governor of Arkansas, and when asked about that on the campaign trail he vigorously defends them."
"There is a very good chance there will be a Democratic Congress in 2008 and if
Huckabee says as governor, 'I could not do anything in Arkansas because I had a Democratic legislature,' I don't think he is going to do anything differently as president with a Democratic Congress," said Soloveichik.
Both former Gov. Huckabee and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts have taken the Americans for Tax Reform pledge not to raise income taxes if elected president. Sen. John McCain of Arizona has not taken the pledge.
Make media inquiries or request an interview about this article.
Subscribe to the free CNSNews.com daily E-Brief.
E-mail a comment or news tip to Josiah Ryan
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.