As governor of Arkansas, Huckabee responded to a fiscal crisis by working with Democrats in the Arkansas legislature to raise taxes and eliminate the deficit. Then, in his first presidential campaign in 2008, Huckabee converted himself into a starve-the-beast Republican, signing a pledge not to raise taxes and proposing to replace the income tax with a national sales tax, which would likely amount to a large tax cut for the wealthy.
On this record, it isn't clear whether Huckabee truly is a fiscal conservative who was simply pandering to the Republican base when he promised not to raise taxes in his last campaign. Maybe he really does believe that taxes ought to be cut, and raised them only because he was confronting a solidly Democratic legislature. What Huckabee actually thinks about the budget is the biggest question in his second presidential campaign.
In announcing that he would run again on Tuesday, Huckabee cited the 90 tax cuts that became law when he was governor. As The Washington Post reported the last time Huckabee ran, and again this week, that number is misleading. Many of those tax cuts were nominal, and they were far outweighed by the few large increases in taxes that became law while he was in office.
In 1996, the year before Huckabee took office, residents of Arkansas paid 9.5 percent of their income in state and local taxes annually, on average. Ten years later, when Huckabee left office, the rate was 10.3 percent, according to the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan research group. The Club for Growth, a group that advocates for lower taxes, is responding to Huckabee's announcement with an advertisement criticizing him for the increases.
Huckabee, though, doesn't deserve all of the blame -- or the credit, depending on your point of view -- for the increases.
As Daniel Nasaw reported in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2007, Huckabee had signed a large income tax cut totaling $90.6 million in his first year in office a decade before. The cut helped the poor. The standard deduction was doubled, and the law allowed many poor residents to avoid paying state income tax.
A few years later, in 2003, Huckabee was confronting a ruling from Arkansas's Supreme Court that the state had to come up with more money for the public schools in order to provide a sufficient education to all students. Meanwhile, the economy had soured, and the state's revenue was declining.
Huckabee told lawmakers they had to raise taxes, saying that he would welcome any proposals for doing so. "We're talking about amputating valuable and vital limbs if we don't come up with necessary funding to meet the needs of those who depend on it," he said -- hardly the words of a politician who believes that government is wasteful and that taxes must be cut to enforce discipline.
Later, though, when lawmakers raised the sales tax by 0.875 percentage points, raising more than $400 million a year for public education, Huckabee refused to go along. He thought the legislature should have also forced reforms in the schools. Since the governor of Arkansas effectively does not have a veto, the sales tax increased anyway.
He did, however, sign a 3 percent increase in the income tax and an increase in the excise tax on cigarettes.
In short, Huckabee is hardly a tax-and-spend liberal. Indeed, he opposed the sales tax increase because he thought some of the money would be wasted. That legislation accounted for a little less than half of the total increase in annual revenue during Huckabee's tenure, which amounted to $883.1 million. (Tax cuts reduced that total to $505 million, Nasaw reported.)
Yet Huckabee was willing to compromise, too. He didn't try to argue that Arkansas could cut spending to escape its budget problems. And when he did cut taxes, he made sure that Arkansas's poorer residents got a slice of the pie.
One thing is clear: Huckabee was a dedicated fiscal hawk as governor. By contrast, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has reduced income taxes even though they helped plunge the the state into a deep financial hole.
If Huckabee hopes to win the Republican nomination, he will probably have to convince voters in the GOP primary that at heart, he is more strongly opposed to taxes than he is worried about budget holes. With the notable exception of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, most of the other nominees have pledged not to raise taxes.