Rewriting the History of Arkansas Taxes
|"By the mid-1990s in our state, Arkansans had unfortunately grown quite accustomed to the constant tax increases that had burdened them. Tax increases were almost an expected action when the legislature met every two years. That trend finally changed, however. In my first legislative session as governor almost a decade ago, the centerpiece of my administration's legislative package was the first broad-based tax cut in Arkansas history. I am proud to say that we were successful, and an era of tax reduction began." |
As governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee insisted his administration spend the citizen's tax dollars wisely. At the same time, he focused his efforts on fighting historic abuses of the state's taxing authority. For decades prior to 1997, Arkansans tended to assume taxes would be raised when the legislature met. From his first days in office, Mike struggled to change the dialog at the State Capitol. His efforts did eventually pay off and by the start of the 1997 legislative session, an amazing thing had occurred within those marble halls. Suddenly, the question was no longer how much taxes would be raised. Instead, the debate centered on how much they would be cut.
Under Mike's leadership, Arkansans saw their tax burden reduced that year by $90 million. As part of his legislative package, Arkansans enjoyed a doubling of the the standard state income tax deduction and watched enactment of the first Taxpayers' Bill of Rights in Arkansas history. Other tax breaks passed as part of his legislative package included an elimination of state income tax for families below the poverty line, axing the the marriage penalty, doubling the child-care tax credit, and striking state income tax on any capital gains resulting from the sale of a home. The final measures of his package included indexing tax brackets to inflation and a repeal of a variety of state sales taxes on certain services.
Flush with the success of his 1997 legislative package, Mike proposed a Property Taxpayers' Bill of Rights as the centerpiece of his proposal for the 1999 legislative session. Other segments of his package for that session included a variety of additional tax breaks.
Mike Huckabee took a revolutionary approach regarding tax increases. Throughout his decade of service, he worked hard to ensure that any tax or fee increase had the suport of the citizens. As a result, increases were not the result of the Arkansas Legislature imposing general tax increases on the citizenry. Rather, increases were case by case occurrances targeted to address specific state needs.
A case typical for this approach occurred shortly after he became governor. After a short campaign led by Mike, Arkansas voters went to the the polls in November 1996 and approved a one-eighth cent increase in the state sales tax to benefit the state park system, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the Department of Arkansas Heritage and the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission. This voter approved investment in their future has allowed Arkansas to make tens of millions of dollars in capital improvements, creating the finest system of state parks in America. It fostered an increase in hunting and fishing opportunities for average citizens, improvements to museums and cleaning up throughout the state. As further proof of the voters wisdom, data from the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism indicate travel-related expenditures rising by almost $1.5 billion during the past decade.
Other tax and fee increases implemented when needed to meet specific and critical needs, as when the Arkansas economy followed the national trend and took a turn for the worse during the period of 2001-03. Arkansans understood that, and responded. Later, legislators passed the quality assurance fee on nursing homes, ensuring a large number of our state's nursing homes were saved from going out of business. Voters again taxed themselves to address specific needs with approval of a half-cent sales tax increase when they approved Amendment 79 to the Arkansas Constitution.
Perhaps no other instance illustrates the point more clearly than when Arkansas residents overwhelmingly supported a fuel tax increase. Passage of this constitutional amendment allowed a complete rehabilitation of the Arkansas Interstate Highway System. This $1 billion project, completed on budget and on time, effectively transformed what was well known as one of the worst systems of interstate highways in the country into one of the best. Arkansas' citizens again responded when the driver's license fee was increased in 2001. They supported their elected representatives as they passed legislation designed to prevent the state police insurance system from going broke.
Public education is an area Mike believes to be the most important duty of state government. Responding directly to mandates issued by the Arkansas Supreme Court in the Lake View Schools lawsuit, Mike Huckabee and the Arkansas Legislature redesigned a school financing program, including raising the funding necessary to support it. Mike worked tirelessly to ensure that any money raised would be applied directly to ensuring educational mandates were met. As a result of his efforts, including a variety of revolutionary educaitonal programs he proposed and signed into law, the state's educational tax dollars are being spent in a much more efficient manner, with increased standards and monitoring now the norm.
Mike believes the examples outlined above are reasoned responses to specific needs, not general tax increases allowing the Legislature to spend tax dollars as it pleased. Continuing his policy of protecting the taxpaying citizens of Arkansas, he has been outspoken in recent months, calling for a significant portion of the current $800 million-plus state surplus to be returned to the taxpayers. His position has always been when government has a large surplus, it is a sign more money has been taken from the people than necessary. In the face of large surpluses, he always believes a tax refund or reduction makes more sense than a government spending spree. This was his position when he entered the governor's office and it remains his philisophy today.