Stetson-Size Agenda for Texas

INTERVIEW GEORGE W. BUSH

ONE of George W. Bush's first actions as governor-elect of Texas was to fill the job of secretary of state - and upgrade the position.

Tony Garza, a Hispanic judge, will handle the usual duties of overseeing elections and corporate filings. But he will also act as a sort of US secretary of state for Texas, dealing with Mexico and developing border policies.

The addition of a foreign-policy role to the job underscores the importance Mr. Bush is likely to place on ties with his neighbor south of the border - and affairs beyond the state.

In an interview in his transition office here, Mr. Bush, looking governor-elect-like in dark suit, outlined an agenda that encompasses state, national, and foreign affairs.

International portfolio

Just hours after his Dec. 1 inauguration as president of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon had two visitors in his waiting room - former President George Bush and son George W. The Mexican president promised to do all in his power to ensure best-ever relations with Texas. ``I am going to take him up on that pledge,'' the younger Bush says.

To be sure, dealing with Mexico comes with the governorship. In his enthusiasm for the task, however, Bush is reminiscent of the former president. The two men differ in style, which Bush attributes to his father's formal, elite Eastern upbringing in contrast to his own in Midland, Texas, against a backdrop of ``tumbleweeds and dust storms and Little League baseball.''

But their philosophical substance - what many describe as conservative without xenophobia - is the same. Where a Ross Perot-type conservative sees risks to avoid in the foreign arena, the Georges Bush see opportunities to embrace.

Make that ``enormous opportunities'' in the case of Mexico, whose Christmas shoppers are flooding malls in San Antonio and other Texas cities. Bush calls Mexico ``crucial'' to the Texas economy.

On illegal immigration, Bush takes a strict stand on border enforcement but a compassionate, or at least pragmatic, view of those who slip through.

He commends Gov. Ann Richards, the Democrat he defeated, for suing the federal government over the cost to states of illegals. He calls for the newly Republican Congress to provide the manpower to control the border.

But Bush also says he understands Mexico's anger at California's Proposition 187, which seeks to end most aid to illegal immigrants there. He says he does not share the resentment many Americans feel toward illegals. Having encountered them ``all my life,'' Bush speaks admiringly of those who undergo hardships to come and earn more for their families. Once they are here, it's only ``good public policy'' for Texas to educate their children, he says.

New Federalism

Bush has a short message to Congress on federal-state issues: ``Free us.''

``One of my missions is to help redefine federalism,'' he says. He's looking for less federal intrusion and more local control. The in-coming GOP Congress seems to agree. Bush believes he witnessed ``an historic shift'' at the recent conference of GOP governors in Virginia, where Congress's new leaders talked of altering the federal-state relationship.

Bush urges them on: ``Fulfill your obligations, Speaker Gingrich, to our philosophy, which is that the best laboratories of change are states.'' In turn, Bush wants to give counties, cities, and school boards more power over their own affairs.

Bush says he agrees with the GOP's Contract with America. He favors prayer in school if it is voluntary, silent, and not forced upon school districts. He subscribes to the theory that cutting the capital-gains tax would boost government revenue because of increased economic activity. But he hopes Congress will not cut that tax and then refuse to cut spending.

Goals 2000, a public-education improvement program that began under President Bush, ``has evolved into something I don't think I'm going to accept.'' Centralized control ``is the precise opposite of what I want to have happen in education.''

Similarly, Bush is eager to overturn aspects of the Ruiz settlement, which ended two decades of federal judicial control of Texas prisons brought on by crowded conditions. He thinks the state made a bad deal, in accepting control along with the federal operating constaints. ``Texas is [still] not free to run its prison system,'' he says. ``It makes no sense to have a federal judge micromanaging the operations of a billion-dollar industry.''

During the campaign, Bush said he would ``violate'' the Ruiz settlement by erecting tents to house 34,000 inmates. The Richards campaign scoffed that doing so would cost Texas $800,000 a day in fines, which would be better spent on new prisons. ``Violate was an unfortunate word, because I am a law-abiding citizen,'' Bush says now. He believes the Ruiz settlement could be ``challenged'' based on an untested court ruling that favors tents.

`Beholden to nobody'

Bush will present his platform to the Democratic-controlled Legislature the same way he did to voters: as ``conservative,'' not ``Republican,'' he says. ``This is why I won.'' Having attracted GOP, conservative Democrat, and independent voters, ``I feel beholden to nobody,'' he says. His percentage margin of victory was the largest of any Texas governor in 20 years.

For the moment, Bush is preoccupied with legislative strategy, and juvenile-justice and tort reform are on the agenda. But all bets are off if the Texas Supreme Court rules that the state's education funding system is unconstitutional, as the court has done three times since 1989.

Then there are all those jobs to fill.

``Literally, one of the first appointments I make is to the Texas Fire Ant Commission,'' says Bush, who aims to shrink state government. But he adds, his instruction to those he appoints is ``show me a program that works, and I favor it.''

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