Politicians can't agree on whether Texas recession is coming or going

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Even oil-rich Texas is feeling the recession.

One unmistakable sign: unemployment here is expected to keep climbing from the current 7.7 percent rate, the highest since 1970.

But with November elections coming up, Republicans and Democrats are defining the state's economic troubles very differently.

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Gov. William P. Clements, the state's first Republican governor in more than a century, sees recession as a problem that Texas is leaving behind fast. Along with many business leaders here, Mr. Clements insists that the Reagan administration's supply-side policies are winning the battle against recession - and that Texas is leading the nation back toward full recovery.

Texas Attorney General Mark White, the Democratic challenger hoping to unseat Governor Clements in November, disagrees. Building his campaign around economic issues, Mr. White charges that the recession is deepening in Texas due to ''Clements' mishandling of the economy, his incredible lack of foresight, and his bullheaded attitudes on this unemployment issue.''

White's ''blame-Clements'' gambit could work with voters here, political observers speculate, because no one can pin down specific causes for the state's economic woes.

First City Bancorporation of Texas, the 56-member statewide holding company which has grown as rapidly as Texas itself, offers some clues in its just-released annual, ''Inside Texas 1982: An Economic Perspective.'' The state's success in diversifying and building closer ties with both the national economy and world markets, the First City report notes, has made Texas far more vulnerable to national and international economic downturns.

But First City's chief economist, Charles Franckle, says that he has been ''surprised by the suddenness and the severity of the drop that has occurred.'' Texas, he points out, rode out the 1969-70 and 1973-75 recessions virtually unscathed. One key difference this time, he says, is that oil and gas industry profits have slumped. This leaves Texas more in the grip of national trends because ''energy is no longer pulling in the opposite direction.''

Dr. Franckle and First City, however, remain optimistic, concluding that a slow but steady national recovery has already started and that Texas will lead the recovery. Their main warning: ''Our forecast assumes that the general thrust of the supply-side policies will be maintained.''

Franckle argues that Texas has suffered from overreactions to falling energy prices. He says that lower returns from the oil business combined with uncertainty about the future have dried up investment capital and slowed exploration and production programs. But he insists that the energy industry remains ''a very sound and strong industry'' and that Texas remains ''a very attractive place to invest.''

The First City report points to the Federal Reserve Board's industrial output index as one reason for optimism about the Texas economy. First City expects that as in previous recessions, Texas manufacturing, mining, and utility output will weather the storm. Its report predicts that ''when the national index bottoms out later this year after a 3.5 percent decline, the state index will have dropped a mere 1 percent.''

Such optimism is backed up by Wall Street. Both Houston and Dallas are rated Aaa by Moody's Investors Service Inc. and AAA by Standard and Poor's Corporation , the highest possible credit ratings from these two major credit-risk assessors.

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