Texans look ahead to when the boom fades

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Texas has scored another first -- this time it leads the nation in the number of highway bridges in need of urgent repair or replacement.

This finding, from the Washington D.C.-based Road Information Program, is just one of many signs that breakneck growth has its drawbacks. It can lead even a rich state into dangerous detours around key issues.

On a straight comparison with other states, Texas has a lot to boast about. Houston, Dallas, and a host of other cities continue to offer hard evidence of success: new office towers built nonstop and occupied before the windows get their first washing.

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But for a group of leading political, business, and university figures here, it's time to stop boasting and start serious planning for 20 and 50 years ahead. It's time as well, some suggest, to increase state taxes for the first time since 1971 in order to fund long-range programs such as statewide water projects.

The recently released Texas 2000 report argues that the state can benefit from continued growth. But it also warns that Texas faces serious problems if it does not anticipate the challenges of rapid growth.

Commissioned by Texas Gov. William P. Clements two years ago, the report lists key Texas achievements:

* Economic growth so far ahead of the national growth rate over the past 20 years that state personal per capita income has topped the national average since 1980.

* A jobless rate that has held at 5 percent while unemployment nationally has jumped to 9.4 percent.

* An energy industry that today provides 21 percent of US energy output.

* An agricultural sector that places Texas third in farm earnings.

Reflecting Southwestern conservatism, the Texas 2000 report sees the state's ''favorable business climate'' as ''a major factor in the growth of Texas' economy.'' It supports keeping ''the role of government at a minimum.''

But it also stresses that much of the state's success is the result of oil and gas riches and dramatic rises in oil prices during the 1970s -- advantages Texas can't count on for the future since oil and gas production is dropping.

The report warns that Texas needs specific programs geared to new needs. Population growth from today's 14 million to 22 million by 2000, it calculates, means that ''170,000 new jobs must be created each year to keep the growing work force employed.''

The report focuses on seven areas of concern:

1. Water -- acute water shortages are possible.

2. Energy -- alternate sources are needed to replace declining oil and gas reserves.

3. Agriculture -- high costs are putting a brake on productivity gains.

4. Transportation -- major investment is overdue.

5. Research and development -- new funds are needed to make up for federal cuts and to attract new industry.

6. Government finance -- new state and local revenue sources are needed as federal funds are cut and as oil revenues dwindle.

7. Relations with Mexico -- Texas is in a position to lead national policy.

''Texas' economic development will become increasingly dependent on its ability to diversify its economic base as reliance on the natural resource base declines,'' the report concludes. It argues that diversification in turn depends on research and development, requiring new funds and close cooperation between state government, the private sector, and Texas universities.

University of Texas Bureau of Business Research economist Thomas Plaut says, ''Texas is on the eve of a great transformation. The state's economy, which is relatively underindustrialized and strongly oriented toward energy producing, consuming, and servicing activities, will become highly industrialized.''

Texas A&M University president Frank E. Vandiver is determined to take university-government-private sector cooperation a step further. He calls for international cooperation to ''address the real issues of the future: food, water, energy, technology, and -- above all -- people.''

Dr. Vandiver offers Texas A&M as one of what he foresees as a closely linked group of about 20 ''world universities'' dedicated to tackling the research needed to cope with global problems.

Like others here, Vandiver is starting with Texas. He is upgrading Texas A&M as a major research university by spending heavily to attract top professors and top students. Along with other universities, Texas A&M is working closely with Governor Clements on steps to implement Texas 2000 report recommendations.

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