As Mike Huckabee has started gaining traction, the hit pieces have come so hard and fast that I haven’t been able to respond to all of them. One of the common threads, however, has been critiquing his alleged devotion to “big government” and raising taxes.

Mike Toomey, the president of Club for Growth, penned a particularly damaging piece on Huckabee’s economic policies. At least at first glance. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the argument hinges on whether Huckabee actually is as Toomey describes him: a proponent of “big-government liberalism.”

During Huckabee’s tenure as governor, the average Arkansan’s tax burden increased 47 percent, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A dyed-in-blue tax hiker, Huckabee supported raising sales taxes, gas taxes, grocery taxes, even nursing home bed taxes. He virulently opposed a congressional moratorium on taxing Internet access, and sat on the sidelines while his Democratic legislature pushed the largest tax hike in Arkansas history into law. What’s more, on his watch, and frequently at his behest, state spending increased by 50 percent, more than double the rate of inflation, and the number of state government workers rose by 20 percent. Yes, as a presidential candidate, Huckabee has signed on as a supporter of the Fair Tax and pledged against raising taxes, but when a candidate’s long and clear record flies in the face of his election-year symbolism, you can chalk it up to politics every time.

Toomey apparently doesn’t read his own organization’s report cards, which is far less cut and dry than Toomey’s rhetoric indicates.

Governor Huckabee’s record on pro-growth, free-market policies is a mixed bag, with pro-growth positions on trade and tort reform, mixed positions on school choice, political speech, and entitlement reform, and profoundly anti-growth positions on taxes, spending, and government regulation.

The report even points out that the condemnation of his positions on taxes, spending, and government regulation isn’t wholesale. Rather, Huckabee’s early days were spent doing what fiscal conservatives love: cutting taxes.

While Toomey’s own organization recognizes the nuances of Huckabee’s fiscal record, such subtleties seem lost on Toomey himself. In fact, Toomey never bothers to mention exactly why Huckabee raised taxes in Arkansas. Having been ordered by the state Supreme Court to increase education spending, and finding himself in a situation with no money for prisons or Medicaid, Huckabee opted to raise taxes rather than decrease these services, letting the sales tax increase pass into law without signing it because it did not include enough reform in the education system to constitute a good use of dollars.

As a fiscal conservative, the dilemma is understandable to me. The lag time between cutting taxes and seeing and increase in government revenue shouldn’t prompt fiscal conservatives to stop providing crucial services, like adequately sized and staffed prisons. At least not until adequate long-term solutions can be hammered out in the fires of democracy.
Huckabee wasn’t alone in his dilemma. In 2002 and 2003, a slew of fiscally conservative Republican governors grudgingly raised taxes to pay for their budget shortfalls (see here as well) which had been exacerbated by rising Medicaid expenses. Huckabee’s own Arkansas had 25% of its population on Medicaid.

Can one be a small-government fiscal conservative and still raise taxes? I think so, especially if one governs with an eye to long-term gains. Huckabee seems to approach economics with a pragmatic “take what you can get, give when the bleeding is too much” mentality that those who suffer from tax-cut myopia will hardly understand, but the rest of the world (like myself) will appreciate.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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