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Huckabee Abandons Rebate Plan, Embraces Democrats' Income-Tax Bills

By Stephen Steed
News Little Rock Bureau

LITTLE ROCK -- Gov. Mike Huckabee will abandon his food-tax rebate plan, put more money into the budget for public schools and higher education, and embrace Democrats' income-tax reform efforts.

All three aims were announced Tuesday by Huckabee in his inaugural State of the State address, just the third this century by a Republican governor in Arkansas.

The state's 135 lawmakers, some of its constitutional officers, department heads and other leaders crowded into the chamber of the state House of Representatives for Huckabee's 44-minute address.

Huckabee caught the crowd off-guard with his announcement that he will drop the food-tax plan.

"Frankly, I'm not interested in proposing something that will end up being like a proposed constitution or a highway program, spending all my energy and time pushing something that will be overwhelmingly rejected," he said, referring to efforts a year ago by then-Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, Huckabee's predecessor. Both were soundly defeated by voters.

"It's not a good use of your time, my time, or the people's money," Huckabee said. "And I say it's time to drop it and move on to something better."

Huckabee had wanted to give nearly every Arkansan a minimum of $25 to make up for the state sales tax they pay on food each year, but the plan had lukewarm support at best among Republicans and Democrats alike.

"It's about as popular as Newt Gingrich in a meeting of Young Democrats," Huckabee said.

Most onlookers gave Huckabee sterling reviews.

He spent nearly the first third of his address on returning values, morals and character to the public schools and to society. Many of society's ills, such as high teen-pregnancy rates, school dropout rates and divorces, were caused by the lack of morals and character, he said. Money, he said, won't solve those problems.

Huckabee also pledged his cooperation and pleaded for the same cooperation to be returned, an echo of the speech he gave July 15 when he was finally sworn into office after Tucker reneged for a few hours on his plans to resign. Tucker was convicted of fraud charges related to his days as a businessman in the 1980s.

Huckabee also said he will push for what he calls the "Kids First" program, in which all children will be insured. Many, he said, are in working-class families who make too much money to be eligible for Medicaid and too little money to be able to afford private insurance. That program is set to receive $12 million to $16 million over the state's next two fiscal years.

When those children become sick, they're often taken to emergency rooms, where treatment costs are high and absorbed by paying customers, he said.

The program also will focus on making sure every child in the state has had the proper immunizations.

Most of the legislators applauded when Huckabee announced he would drop his food-tax proposal.

Such unintentional left-handed support caused the governor to quip, "Good Lord, I hope the only appreciation I get is not for just the things I quit on."

They cheered again when he said he would embrace income-tax reform measures already filed by some Democrats, and again when he said he would put more money into the budgets for public schools and higher education.

But the governor stood firm on his plans to revise how Arkansans renew their car licenses every year. "If you don't like it, the people will," he said.

Welfare reform and moving welfare recipients into jobs will now be the centerpiece of his administration's package to the legislature, he said. "We are going to insist that we not short-circuit work force development or impede its progress ...," he said.

Huckabee said dropping the food-tax rebate plan will make more money available for public schools and higher education without lifting the cap on state spending that he has requested. He has allotted an additional $25 million to higher education for the next two years, $30 million extra to the public school fund, and $18 million more to the state's Medicaid program.

Huckabee also said 1997 would be the "Year of Reconciliation" in which the state observes the 40th anniversary of Gov. Orval Faubus' effort to keep nine black students from entering Little Rock's Central High School. Faubus used the Arkansas National Guard to keep the students out; President Dwight Eisenhower used the 82nd Airborne Division to usher them in.

"The Little Rock Nine won't be met by the governor that says 'You can't come in,' but by one who says 'Please, come in,"' Huckabee said. Other governors, including Tucker and Bill Clinton, have met with the Little Rock Nine individually or collectively in past years.

Huckabee also said he would ask lawmakers to increase penalties for church arson.