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Huckabee faces fiscal conservatives

Republican Presidential hopeful, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee gestures while addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, Friday, March 2, 2007. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. --Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee is paying a tax penalty -- not the kind you get from the IRS.

During his 10 years as Arkansas governor, Huckabee supported numerous tax increases. Now that he's left office and is running for president, the Southern Baptist minister is struggling to convince fiscal conservatives -- who wield significant sway in the GOP nomination race -- that he can be trusted not to sin again.

Huckabee recently signed a no-tax pledge, but anti-tax activists remain wary of his claim to have reformed his ways.

The Club for Growth, which advocates limited government and lower taxes, has repeatedly criticized Huckabee since his formation in January of a presidential exploratory committee. It notes that as governor, Huckabee increased taxes on sales, gasoline, cigarettes and nursing homes.

"I'm glad to see he signed the pledge, but as a given matter what politicians have done is a better indicator than what they say they're going to do. His record clearly does not indicate a strong commitment to limited government," said Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth.

Last week, Huckabee delivered a signed copy of the Presidential Taxpayer Protection Pledge to the Americans for Tax Reform, another limited-government, anti-tax advocacy group. In it, he pledged to "oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates" for individuals and businesses, and to offset "dollar for dollar" any rollback in tax deductions with corresponding decreases in tax rates.

It didn't work that way in Arkansas during Huckabee's tenure as governor, but the candidate defended those tax increases as justified.

Huckabee said that when people look at his record, they'll realize that he's actually "a strong fiscal conservative."

Some of his fiscal decisions were driven by court-ordered spending increases or increase for federal entitlement spending for programs "over which you don't have executive control," Huckabee said.

Only the third Republican governor of Arkansas since Reconstruction, Huckabee enjoyed relatively strong support among voters during his time in office. He might not have been as popular if he had promoted himself as an "anti-government conservative," University of Arkansas political scientist Janine Parry said.

Huckabee's record on taxes also reflects the fact that he leads an impoverished state that has faced tax increases to pay for needs, including an ongoing school funding battle, Parry said.

"He doesn't have the luxury of being from a state that's ever been financially well off," Parry said. "He inherited a legacy of poverty and poor health and low education and low economic development. He's had to balance some concerns and actions that governors in other situations don't have to, at least not on that scale."

Among the increases Huckabee advocated while in office was a 1/8-cent increase to pay for conservation programs, a $60 million-a-year fuel tax increase to pay for road construction, and a 1/2-cent sales tax rise. The sales tax increase was tied to a voter-approved constitutional amendment that trimmed property taxes by $180 million.

And, he allowed a 7/8-cent sales tax increase go into effect without his signature in 2004 in response state Supreme Court order to improve schools.

But Huckabee also signed into law nearly $100 million in income tax breaks and other relief measures targeting poor and middle-income taxpayers -- the largest tax cut in Arkansas history at the time. He later signed into law a 30 percent cut in Arkansas' capital gains tax.

Huckabee successfully pushed for a Property Taxpayers' Bill of Rights intended to clarify how property taxes are calculated and how the money is allocated to schools, local governments and other purposes. The law made it easier to challenge tax bills, including provisions for after-hours meetings to accommodate working people.

"We improved test scores and accountability and increased teacher pay while maintaining fiscal responsibility," Huckabee wrote in a recent fundraising letter to supporters. "When I left office on Jan. 9 of this year, Arkansas had a surplus of almost $850 million."

This year, Huckabee's successor, Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, has signed nearly $200 million worth of tax cuts, including the reduction of the state sales tax on food from 6 percent to 3 percent. The $121 million cut is the largest tax cut ever passed by state government.

"I can guarantee that if they didn't have a surplus, they wouldn't be doing it," Huckabee said.