“I governed in a state that was the most lopsided and partisan in the country. … My friend, it was tough sledding, but I learned how to govern, and I learned how to lead. And even in that environment, we passed 94 tax cuts, rebuilt our road system, saw dramatic improvements in student test scores and fought the corruption of the good old boy system so that working class people would finally be given a fair shake.”
— Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R), speech announcing his presidential candidacy, May 5, 2015
In his speech launching his presidential bid for 2016, Huckabee touted a record that came under scrutiny during his last presidential run. Huckabee said he “passed 94 tax cuts,” while highlighting his achievements as governor. Arkansas’s current governor, Asa Hutchinson (R), also said in his introductory speech that his predecessor “lowered taxes.”
In 2008, The Fact Checker gave Huckabee Two Pinocchios for his claim. Other fact-checkers arrived at similar findings. The anti-tax Club for Growth attacked Huckabee (whom the group called “Tax Hike Mike”) for his claim about tax cuts during the campaign in 2007, and it already has launched an ad about his record on taxes.
So it is time for a refresher. What was Huckabee’s record on taxes in Arkansas?
During Huckabee’s tenure as governor, from 1996 to 2007, there were 90 tax cuts. The cuts ranged from tiny cuts, such as a $500 sales tax break for manufacturing machinery, to larger items such as $2.7 million annually in car lease exemptions for the rental car tax, according to a detailed list that the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration provided us.
Some of these cuts were narrowly tailored, such as an income tax deduction for organ donation ($76,000 a year), a sales and use tax exemption for the Salvation Army ($15,000) and a tax exemption for residential lawn care ($210,000). (It is unclear where exactly the figure of “94 tax cuts” comes from, but this number from the state does exclude some minor special revenue fees.)
In his first budget, Huckabee proposed a sweeping overhaul of the state’s income tax system, resulting in a $70 million net tax cut package that was enacted in 1997. He also signed legislation to phase out the 6 percent capital gains tax, which the libertarian Cato Institute called a “significant pro-growth accomplishment.”
For the rest of his term, however, Huckabee’s record was more mixed. He repeatedly approved increases for tobacco, sales and gas taxes. At the same time, there were big increases in transportation spending, health care, anti-smoking campaigns and early education programs, according to the Cato Institute. He also agreed to a sales tax increase to make up for a budget deficit that, in part, was created by his spending increases, according to Cato.
A review of tax legislation that passed under Huckabee shows a net tax increase of $505 million, adjusted for inflation and economic growth. That means although there were 90 laws that resulted in $378 million in lower taxes, there also were 21 others that totaled a tax increase of $883.1 million, according to the state.
The Cato Institute gave Huckabee a B grade in its 1998 Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors, which is published every other year. The grade is generated based on 23 measures of fiscal performance, of the state’s expenditure, revenue and tax rate. Huckabee received lower grades throughout his tenure: C in 2000 and 2002, D in 2004 and, in 2006, an F. He left office with an overall grade of D for his spending practices and tax increases.
“Governor Huckabee’s tax policies are a mixed bag at best,” said Cato budget analyst Nicole Kaeding, who co-authored the report. “During his tenure, the state increased the gasoline tax, the sales tax, the cigarette tax, the personal income tax, along with others. The large tax increases were necessary to finance the rapid increase in state spending during Huckabee’s time in office.”
The report card uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau, National Association of State Budget Officers, National Conference of State Legislatures and each state’s budget offices of the governor and legislature. In most states, the report warns, the legislature and governor have had an equal influence on budget outcomes.
Indeed, much of the additional spending was approved during 2003 and 2004, when Huckabee wrestled with a Democratic legislature, a lagging economy and a state Supreme Court that mandated certain spending, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Huckabee’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
The Pinocchio Test
There indeed were 90 tax cuts when Huckabee was governor of Arkansas. But the effect of these cuts — many of which were narrowly tailored — was offset by 21 tax increases. That resulted in a $505 million net tax increase for Arkansas under Huckabee’s leadership.
Huckabee has the responsibility to retire or revise this talking point as he embarks on another presidential run. Despite repeated concerns about his statement seven years ago, he has repeated the same figure of 94 tax cuts in a high-profile speech. In other words, he was warned this was a problematic claim. Thus, we will boost his rating on this statement to Three Pinocchios.
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