In Arkansas, Huckabee Was a Believer in Big Government

Mike Huckabee may be one of the more conservative presidential candidates, but as governor, he expanded government programs and increased taxes.
by | May 5, 2015

Mike Huckabee's persona as pundit and presidential candidate is a lot different than the image he maintained as governor of Arkansas.

The Republican returns to his home state on Tuesday to make his official announcement for the presidency. During years as a pundit for Fox and in his early maneuvering in the 2016 race, Huckabee has championed issues such as "religious freedom" and opposition to same-sex marriage.

During his decade as governor, however, Huckabee also expanded health coverage for children, increased state spending on schools and presided over ambitious road construction initiatives. He left office with the state enjoying a surplus in excess of $800 million.

"As governor, Huckabee was not a culture warrior," says Hal Bass, who teaches political science at Oachita Baptist University. "Those issues were in the background."

In 2005, Governing named Huckabee a "Public Official of the Year," citing his work on taxes and health, among other issues.

Huckabee took office in 1996, when Democrat Jim Guy Tucker resigned, following his conviction on fraud charges. Huckabee had won a special election as lieutenant governor three years earlier. Tucker spent several hours going back and forth about whether he would step down. Huckabee remained calm and offered the state the sense that everything would turn out well in the end, Bass recalled.

During his first full year in office, Huckabee helped lead an initiative called ARKids First. The program paid for coverage of children whose parents made too much money to qualify for Medicaid but still struggled to afford health insurance. Parts of ARKids First have since been subsumed by the state's participation in the Affordable Care Act, but it continues to offer coverage to some 70,000 kids. The Affordable Care Act expansion is known in Arkansas as the "private option" because federal dollars are used to subsidize private insurance, rather than enroll people in Medicaid. The program remains controversial, but ARKids First helped make the state's health care expansion possible.

"Everybody applauded Huckabee for the ARKids First," said GOP state Sen. Bill Sample during his re-election campaign last year. "The private option is the same thing for adults."

Huckabee faced a Democratic-controlled legislature throughout his time in office. "There was a lot of animosity from the very beginning," said Jim Argue, a Democrat and former president of the state Senate. "Honestly, there were some Democrats who thought part of their job description was to poke at Mike Huckabee and make life difficult for him."

But Huckabee and Democrats in the legislature could work together. Perhaps this was because Huckabee -- while staunchly conservative on social issues such as abortion -- was willing to expand government programs that he thought could make a difference in people's lives.

"He would typically in a session do one high-profile thing on social issues, then check that off the list," said Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College. "As governor, that was never front and center for him."

Faced just after his re-election in 2002 with a state Supreme Court decision that found state spending on schools inadequate, Huckabee quickly came up with a plan to consolidate districts and increase the sales tax. He didn't get everything he wanted -- and he ultimately let the resultant legislative package become law without his signature -- but he supported education reform.

"He could have challenged the court and balked at that," said Ark Monroe, a longtime Little Rock lobbyist who has worked for Democratic governors. "Instead, he led the way on school consolidation, which is a tough issue here."

Huckabee had previously signed off on legislation that mandated $3,000-a-year increases in teacher salaries. He ultimately saw school funding increase considerably on his watch -- the sales tax the legislature ultimately passed was worth more than $300 million a year.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, left, is expected to pull other presidential candidates to the right. Also pictured are Republicans' U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum. (AP/Charlie Neibergall)

While governor, Huckabee drew considerable criticism for supporting the idea of offering in-state tuition rates and scholarships to undocumented students, which ultimately didn't pass. He continues to defend that stance, but takes a harder line against immigration these days.

Huckabee passed a broad-based tax cut shortly after taking office, but the state's overall tax burden increased while he was in office, with Huckabee supporting a number of increases along the way. That has earned him considerable and ongoing criticism from anti-tax groups such as Club for Growth -- which Huckabee derides as the "Club for Greed."

For all he accomplished as governor, Huckabee was probably best known on the national scene, prior to his presidential run in 2008, for having lost weight. After being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, Huckabee became an avid runner and shed more than 100 pounds.

Fighting obesity was a cause he championed both at home and as chair of the National Governors Association.

"He actually was a very good chair," said Raymond Scheppach, a former NGA executive director. "He was very good at reaching out to Democrats and being quite bipartisan."

Now, Huckabee is taking on a new image as he runs for president. He'll be the only announced GOP candidate thus far who has pledged to fight against any cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

In general, however, Huckabee is expected to push conservative ideas, to the extent that pundits are talking about him pulling other candidates to the right.