"You know what we did?" he said to George Stephanopoulos of ABC News last Feb. 11, 2007. "We put it on the ballot, and 80 percent of the people of Arkansas voted for the fuel taxes because they wanted better roads."
The voters voted all right – but not on the taxes. Instead, voters approved (by 80 percent) a $575-million bond issue that would be supported by the diesel tax and future federal highway funds. The diesel tax and the gasoline tax were going to take effect regardless of how the public voted.
The Arkansas legislature had approved those taxes on April 1, 1999, and the first penny of the gas tax and the first 2 cents of diesel tax were already in effect on June 15, when voters went to the polls that year. (The gas tax rose by a penny each of the next two years, the diesel tax by 2 cents the next year.)
The taxes and the bonds were a package plan, and Huckabee was its strong advocate. The plan to sell bonds was in Act 1027, approved by the legislature the same day as the gas tax in Act 1028.
Huckabee would be fully justified in arguing that the vote reflected support for the taxes that supported the plan to issue bonds.
In fact, he could even argue that the voters were approving the massive additional spending on roads. If the federal grants and diesel tax weren't enough to repay the bonds, the "full faith and credit" of the state stood behind them. As matter of fact, the gas tax wasn't directly pledged at all.
But you could also argue the voters had nothing to lose. Their gas tax was going up whether they approved the bonds or not. The bonds made the road-building happen much faster.
For Huckabee and an overwhelming majority of legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, the need was clear. That year, and again in 2000, professional truck drivers surveyed by Overdrive magazine rated Interstate 40 across Arkansas, between Memphis on the eastern border and Fort Smith on the Oklahoma border, the worst highway in the country. The Arkansas portion of I-30, which runs between Dallas and Little Rock, ranked fifth worst. The Overdrive annual survey also identified Arkansas highways as the worst overall.
The success of the plan is now also clear. By 2005, I-40 in Arkansas was the nation's "most improved highway" in the Overdrive survey, and I-30 was in the top five in that category.
"When we put that out there for the people to decide whether they wanted to affirm it, they did by an 80 percent vote," Huckabee said on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes on Nov. 15, 2007. "I'd call that leadership."
We'd also call that accurate – because of the phrase "affirm it," which is closer to what voters actually did on the matter. So, does Huckabee's "affirm" language fix his claim as well as he fixed his roads? Alas, the myth of the approved tax continued.
On Dec. 30, 2007, on NBC's Meet the Press , Huckabee responded to rival Mitt Romney's attacks on his tax record. "He made claims about things like tax increases," Huckabee said, "but he failed to mention that some of those were either court-ordered, or they were voted on by the people and approved by the people for (such) things as roads."
(The "court-ordered" part, which refers to a $400-million increase in the sales tax for education after the Arkansas Supreme Court threw out the state's school-financing system, is also passing the buck. The court ordered a new funding system, arguably even required more spending, but didn't order any tax increase. But that's another Truth-o-Meter.)
So how do we evaluate this "voter approval" claim? We can't understand politicians who have a real story to tell and then needlessly fudge some small piece of it.
Ruling: Half True.