Leader Blues

Friday, August 11, 2006

EDITORIALS>> ‘Good,’ ‘bad’ governors

Economic statistics can prove to be so perverse, but rarely to such an extreme as the report card that the Arkansas Policy Foundation issued the past week on the job-creating performance of Arkansas governors since World War II.

The Policy Foundation is the conservative, Republican-leaning think tank in Little Rock that promotes lower taxes, smaller government, private-school vouchers and reduced spending on public education. It maintains that business and job growth depend heavily on a good business climate of light regulation and low or nonexistent taxes on business and incomes. So it examined labor statistics both for Arkansas and the nation since the war to see how the governors stacked up.

If the figures that it gleaned were a valid measure of the governors’ economic performances, you would have to draw a couple of conclusions: (1) Republican governors are antibusiness and antigrowth, Democratic governors far better, and (2) governors who preside over tax increases tend to rack up more new jobs for people than those who don’t.

No one would seriously argue either of those assertions, and certainly not the Arkansas Policy Foundation. But what are we to make of the statistics?

- The worst jobs record of all the governors since World War II? Hands down, it belongs to Mike Huckabee. He is the only one of the 10 governors whose tenure produced a percentage growth in net non-farm jobs that was lower than the national growth for the same period. Next to worst would be Gov. Frank White, the last previous Republican, in 1981-83, who was the only governor during whose term the state actually experienced a net loss of jobs. But the country fell into a deep recession halfway through White’s single term and the nation as a whole lost jobs at a slightly quicker pace than Arkansas. Winthrop Rockefeller, the other Republican, ranked in the bottom half.

- The best governors for jobs growth? In order, they were David Pryor (1975-79), Dale Bumpers (1971-75), Orval E. Faubus (1955-67) and Sid McMath (1949-53). The job-growth rate ranged from 5.4 percent under Pryor to 4.8 percent under McMath. No one was close to those four. You wondered about Bill Clinton? He was low (1.7 percent) in his first term (1979-81) but moderately effective (3.8 percent) his second tenure (1983-92).

What lessons have we learned from the Policy Foundation’s intriguing report? The foundation seems not to have offered any itself. The best lesson may be that there is no lesson of abiding consequence. Arkansas is not an economy unto itself but, as Mike Huckabee’s 10-year record demonstrates, it is carried along in the eddies of national economic flow and ebb. The policies and successes of individual governors work at the margins of the economy.

But the little think tank that brought us the titillating statistics might absorb one lesson from its labors: what the figures do not prove, that raising taxes for education, highways and health care is the death knell of expansion and jobs. Those governors with the superb record of new jobs? They raised taxes significantly, all except Pryor, whose two terms were a virtual extension of the Bumpers administration, when every major tax was expanded in some way.

On the other hand, as the Policy Foundation would surely point out, taxes and government have grown mightily under Mike Huckabee and jobs have disappeared or cropped up sparsely. We’ll make the governor’s apologia for him: He did well during the Clinton boom years of 1996-2000, and the lucky Bumpers, Pryor and McMath did not have to stand in the wake when the economic tide went out with George W. Bush.