Leader Blues

Saturday, December 29, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Pure fiction from Rollins

When he famously directed Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984, Ed Rollins showed a knack for creating agreeable fancy about the president’s leadership.

With the communist-bloc countries boycotting the summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, the United States swept them in a glorious way and Rollins fashioned the campaign around that triumph, boasting that it was Morning in America.

As the new chairman of the Mike Huckabee for president campaign, Rollins has a bigger job minting the former Arkansas governor as a conservative leader in the Reagan mold. It looks like his tactic will be fiction.

Appearing before a national audience for the first time on CBS News over the weekend, Rollins had this to say about Huckabee as a fiscal conservative:

“You know, one of the things he had to do was fix the educational system. The state Supreme Court ordered him to raise $300 million to add an additional $300 million to education. The voters in the state had voted for a highway program that was totally unfunded. He went forth and made it an issue.

And then the voters themselves voted for a three-cent increase in taxes. He cut income taxes. At the end of the day the story that’s not told is this is a guy who inherited a $250 million deficit. And, at the end of the day, he left $850 million in the treasury.”

It was pure fiction. None of it ever happened, although there was a tiny grain of truth in a couple of phrases. Let’s take them in order:

“The state Supreme Court ordered him to raise $300 million. . . .”

The Supreme Court never ordered the governor or the state to raise a dime of taxes. It said the quality of education across the state was uneven and by and large inadequate. It left it to the legislature how to equalize and strengthen the schools.

The legislators and Gov. Huckabee decided to do it by raising taxes rather than redirecting existing resources. Huckabee also wanted to achieve equality by consolidating most of the state’s school districts, which the Supreme Court did not order and the legislature ultimately did not accept.

“The voters in the state had voted for a highway program that was totally unfunded.” What Rollins was talking about we have no idea. The voters approved an interstate highway program in 1999 but it was 100 percent funded. It was a bond issue supported by Huckabee. The bond issue was paid off from existing state taxes and federal receipts.

“He went forth and made it an issue. And then the voters themselves voted for a three-cent increase in taxes.” Didn’t happen. The voters never voted for a tax increase of any size to pay for highways. That three-cent gasoline tax, which Huckabee proposed, was passed into law by the legislature and was collected before people voted on the highway bond issue. Again: Although Huckabee has said so repeatedly, voters never had a chance to vote on taxes.

“He cut income taxes.” Okay, a grain of truth here. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker proposed an omnibus income tax cut — actually, seven separate tax cuts rolled into one bill — but he resigned from office in 1996 before the legislature assembled.

Democratic legislators — 83 of them and not one Republican— picked up Tucker’s proposal and sponsored it in the session that assembled soon after Huckabee became governor.

His own tax plan (a $25-a-person rebate) having foundered, Huckabee capitulated and signed the Democratic tax cut. The lawmakers were amazed when, during his re-election campaign the next year, Huckabee took credit for forcing the tax cut through the legislature. That has been his account of it ever since.

“At the end of the day the story that’s not told is this is a guy who inherited a $250 million deficit. And, at the end of the day, he left $850 million in the treasury.” Not true. Huckabee did not inherit a $250 million deficit but a SURPLUS of close to that sum.

Conservative budgeting by the legislature and Gov. Tucker in 1995 produced a surplus that was $107.4 million the day that Huckabee took over from Tucker in July 1996.

The Tucker budget produced another surplus of $118 million in the new fiscal year that was beginning and which Huckabee had absolutely nothing to do with. So Huckabee and the new legislature had a surplus of about $225 million to spend when it assembled in January 1997. It was that surplus that gave them the leeway to cut income taxes.

As for the $850 million surplus that Huckabee left, there is some substance to it. The surplus, built by tight budgeting under the direction of House Speaker Bill Stovall, was actually about $470 million when Huckabee left office in January but a batch of tax increases that he had helped pass between 2001 and 2005 sent the surplus soaring to $850 million by the end of this June, six months after he left office.

All those tax increases help account for the increase in size of the state government from $7.1 billion a year when Huckabee took office to about $17.1 billion when he left 10 ˝ years later.

No court ordered him to do it and Arkansas voters had almost nothing to do with it. That is a Reagan-sized accomplishment all right — remember that Reagan tripled the national debt in eight years — but fiscal conservatism is a description that only Ed Rollins could apply.