Conservative Governor Pushes for Higher Taxes, Education Funding Equity
By Jason White, Assistant Staff Writer
As a conservative Republican fighting for higher taxes and a bigger state role in education, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is turning conventional political labels upside down.
His nearly yearlong push for these measures is being considered by a special session of the state's Democrat-controlled Legislature. Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher, casts the debate in moral terms.
"Because of my faith I believe that all persons should be treated with equal respect and dignity, and that our greatest responsibility is to those who can do nothing for us, not those who can do much for us," Huckabee said in an interview with Stateline.org.
As a result, he said, Arkansas must better educate all of its children, especially those residing in poor areas. Huckabee and state legislators are working under a Jan. 1 deadline, which was set last November by the Arkansas Supreme Court in its Lake View decision, which declares the state's school system unconstitutional because it fails to provide an adequate and equal education for every child.
Huckabee's education plan involves a 1-cent increase in the state sales tax and the consolidation of all districts with less than 500 students. He said consolidation is necessary to take advantage of economies of scale, because the state cannot afford to raise teacher salaries and provide specialized coursework in all 308 districts. His plan would consolidate 100 districts.
His consolidation proposal faces opposition from many rural legislators and small-school administrators who oppose consolidation of any kind.
Huckabee rose from lieutenant governor to governor in 1996 after then-Gov. Jim Guy Tucker resigned. Tucker had been convicted of conspiracy and mail fraud in the Whitewater real estate venture that dated from Bill Clinton's era as Arkansas governor. Huckabee, as a member of the state's minority party and without a solid constituency, was not expected to make a big splash.
But he has since been elected twice, in 1998 and 2002. And although his current term will be his last due to term-limits, many political observers expect Huckabee to be back, perhaps as a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
"He has what my students and I call 'The Shine,'" said Janine Parry, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas. "In Arkansas, we have a history of incredibly charismatic, personable and popular politicians, and that's not just a Democratic gene, apparently. So I'd be surprised if we didn't see him on our ballots again,"
Analysts say Huckabee is a natural politician. Before entering the political arena, he served as a church pastor and was president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. He also plays bass guitar in a classic rock band Capitol Offense that has opened for the Charlie Daniels Band and Dionne Warwick.
With his recent push for higher taxes and more equitable education funding, Huckabee has embraced a somewhat proactive view of what government can accomplish, an unusual stance for a Southern Republican. But that's not to say he has forsaken his conservative roots.
He fought to lower taxes in the 1990s. In 2001, he signed into law a so-called "Woman's Right To Know" bill, which requires doctors to advise women of the pros and cons of abortion at least the day before the procedure. This year he approved "Choose Life" license plates. But Parry doubts Huckabee will be remembered for these conservative causes.
"Whether it is because of his nature or because of the times, that will not be his legacy," she said. "His legacy, and he's struggling very diligently to make this legacy, will be about improving Arkansas' education system."
Huckabee thinks fellow Republicans could learn from his example.
"I think it's important that Republicans realize that the greatest way to boost our party and to build the future is to show that we really do care about people that no one else is interested in. If government's focus is only on those who can return the favor, then that is government at its worst," he told Stateline.org.
If this makes Huckabee sound like a Democrat, he's not buying it. He said he remains a staunch Republican and believes the difference between the two parties is not whether they help the poor, but how.
"To me, the dividing line between Republicans and Democrats is not so much whether we care about the poor but our method of helping them," Huckabee said. "Is it to give them something they will forever have to come back to the government to receive? Or is it to equip them so that they can live as independent from government as the wealthiest person can?"