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Huckabee peddles package to leery state legislators.

Specter of Partisan Wrangling Casts Shadow on Session

Gov. Mike Huckabee believes the rumors of a bitter political tussle this year are greatly exaggerated.

"I think the Democrats are smart enough to realize that if they give me different treatment because I'm a Republican, the people of Arkansas won't tolerate it," Huckabee says on the eve of presenting his legislative package to the state's General Assembly. "If they do that, they'd be giving me virtual martyrdom.

"It'd be Bill McCuen nailing my door shut with a power hammer all over again."

Despite assertions to the contrary, the governor does have some reason to be concerned - though not with the convicted former Secretary of State McCuen, who tried to keep Huckabee from occupying his lieutenant governor's office in the state Capitol a few years back.

Huckabee assumed the role of governor in July after Jim Guy Tucker's resignation, giving Arkansas only its third Republican governor since Reconstruction.

Huckabee is presenting a slimmed-down state budget of more than $2.6 billion, which has some legislators worried about education and Medicaid. Several controversial proposals - among them welfare reform, a grocery sales tax rebate and relaxed regulation of charter schools and home schooling - are being pushed by his administration.

As the first Republican governor in this state since Frank White, who had some challenges getting his legislative priorities through the General Assembly, Huckabee is to some extent navigating uncharted territory.

The governor stepped on some toes late last year when, after saying he would stay out of the state's legislative races, he did in the end campaign for some Republican candidates, notably businessman Scott Wallace of Little Rock, Who lost the race for the state Senate seat formerly held by Republican Jim Keet to state Rep. Jim Argue. Huckabee also supported Randy Minton's run for the House District 69 seat. Minton, too, lost - to incumbent David Choate, D-Beebe - as did all the Republican legislative challengers.

Huckabee's campaigning left some Democratic lawmakers grumbling in hushed tones along the hallways of the Capitol. But as always in politics, the public statements belie the quiet realities.

"The bulk of whatever lingering animosity there is would be primarily in the House," says state Sen. Mike Beebe, D-Searcy. "In the Senate his program is going to stand or fall on its own merits."

As Huckabee says, "Neither side can afford to be stupid and play partisan politics." But that doesn't mean animosities aren't brewing someplace where the cameras and microphones can't find them. The proof, not surprisingly, will be in the way the legislative debate unfolds.

"I know there are some people in the House that have hard feelings," says House Speaker Bobby Hogue, D-Jonesboro. "If you're running for office and you have a sitting governor working against you, you're not going to come to the session and just say it's all right now.

"If [Huckabee] thinks that, he's living in another world. You can't tell me if we tried to beat him, he'd come down and say it's hunky-dory and I just love you to death. I'm tired of hearing that crap."

Hogue adds that Huckabee is an expert at using the media.

"I hope every time we disagree with him or question him he doesn't come hollering that we did it because he was a Republican," Hogue says. "Because in the position he's in, you're going to have people question you. That's part of it."

Former Gov. Frank White, a Republican, takes a rosier view of the coming session. He predicts broad support from both sides of the legislative aisle.

"The governor's put a very lean budget in," White says. "When there's not much money, there's not much to wrangle about."

Points of Agreement/Points of Contention

The governor's wish list includes a range of proposals, many of which have to do with cutting back government spending. That this is a priority for Huckabee is obvious from, among other things, his support for the work of the Murphy Commission, which has been looking for ways to eliminate inefficiencies and cut costs in state government.

The Murphy Commission is the brainchild of the Arkansas Policy Foundation, a Little Rock-based conservative think tank.

"You have to hold government spending to a level that reflects the level that Arkansas families have," Huckabee says. "If you don't do that, then we don't have room for tax relief or setting real priorities, like education, tax cuts and welfare reform."

In putting together his budget proposal, Huckabee says he was hamstrung by some moves his predecessor made in the weeks before leaving office last July, among them salary raises for state employees.

"People know about the 2.8 percent increase Tucker put in place just before he left," the governor says, "but he also implemented an additional 2 percent raise for all state employees. That's a perpetuating expense - it doesn't go away - and it amounts to some $42 million. I'm just thrilled to death about it."

No one in the Arkansas Legislature will admit to being against a leaner, meaner state government, but there are some who wonder how it will be accomplished, exactly. For example, education has received a modest increase in the Huckabee budget, but it has a smaller slice of the aggregate pie.

"The only thing I've made my mind up about," Beebe says, "and it's typical of my colleagues, is that at the same time as we consider tax relief programs, we have to consider the specific effects of that relief on programs. This is a big cause of concern, because we can agree in general terms, but we can't make an intelligent decision until we know the details."

Similarly, just about everyone is for welfare reform - and even if they weren't, federal mandates would make their disagreement moot. July 1 is the deadline for states to have 25 percent of their welfare recipients in a work participation program.

The situation is exacerbated, Beebe says, because he's just learned that there is a correlation between early implementation of welfare reform and additional incentive money and matching funds from the federal government. And it looks like this bird isn't going to be early enough to catch that worm.

And while the sales tax rebate on food is difficult to oppose on principle, to some it looks a little flimsy.

Huckabee's proposal guarantees a $25 rebate to each Arkansas resident, and maybe more if the state coffers can spare it. He can promise the $25 minimum because of the almost $100 million that remains in the treasury from the last fiscal year.

But $25 isn't a lot of money, and Argue, now a freshman state senator, says that his constituents have been telling him, almost unanimously, that if that's all they're going to get, they'd rather see the $100 million be put into education, where it's desperately needed.

Hogue is, characteristically, more direct.

"If I had to give it a zero to 10 chance of winning," he says, "I'd give it a one. People I talk to think it's just a way to use state money to give everybody $25. They think it's a joke. It's hard to believe he still thinks it has a chance of passing."

White also has his reservations about this aspect of the governor's program.

"I wouldn't have done it that way," he says, "but he's the governor."

A Pro-Business Governor?

If Huckabee aims, as it appears he does, to solidify his credentials as a friend of business, he has some pretty big shoes to fill. His predecessor, Jim Guy Tucker, was widely viewed as not only genuinely pro-business, but as someone who understood the realities of business in this state.

Huckabee's statements on business are a little sketchier. His remarks often seem to be derived from policy papers published by the Arkansas Policy Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C.

"My preference is to see a lower level of taxes on an increasing private base," Huckabee says. "We [in government] need to stay out of the entrepreneur's way."

Does that mean we can look for a dramatic shift in the amount of accountability state government demands from businesses in terms of workplace safety and environmental responsibility? Not at all, says Huckabee, who earned himself some notoriety recently for his public use of the term "wacko environmentalists."

"Companies that are going to be successful long-term are going to be the ones that respect their employees and respect the environment," he says. "And we can't abuse the environment or rape and pillage it, or it will cease to serve us."

No issue brings out the governor's pro-business perspective more sharply than his views on taxes. Any governor has to be concerned about Arkansas' chances of attracting businesses to the state, and one of the more tried-and-true means of doing this in the past has been to keep the tax burden low.

"Government has to start listening more to the people who contribute the tax money than to the people who receive it," Huckabee says. "We'll be more sensitive to the taxpayer than the tax receiver."

That manifesto should bring smiles to the faces of the state's business community, but it's not going to do much for the less well-heeled members of the state's socioeconomic family.

"When Arkansas' combined state and local tax burden is 49th in the nation, it's difficult for me to buy into the governor's argument that we've somehow been insensitive to the needs of the tax-contributors," Argue says.

And for some the low taxes strategy of economic development is an idea whose time has come and gone.

"[Huckabee's] concern is that when Arkansas has average state taxes and surrounding states have less than average taxes, that's an economic development impediment," Argue says. "I disagree. I think business people are smart enough to assess the total tax burden, not just one piece. I think they can compare state and local together."

Argue says that the low-tax philosophy should be replaced by an economic development strategy that embraces infrastructure, education and quality of life issues.

For now, the political waters look relatively untroubled. But as a veteran legislature and a popular new governor jockey for the approval of the electorate, it's only a matter of time before stark policy and spending disagreements break through the surface.

Stay tuned.
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Title Annotation:Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee
Author:Spillenger, Paul
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jan 13, 1997
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