Sunbelt economy: a real decline, or a temporary dip?

Has recession hit the Sunbelt?

Is it even reaching into Houston, the area's pace setter where incomes have soared even more rapidly than the city's remarkable population growth?

Answers here often seem to reflect politics more than economics.

Democrats and labor groups determined to defeat Texas Gov. William Clements and other Republican officeholders say ''the Reagan recession'' is both real and worsening in Texas.

Republicans and business leaders, on the other hand, argue that the Sunbelt's dip into recessionary waters is purely temporary. They list Texas's basic economic strengths as proof that just as this state was among the last to feel the recession, it will be among the first to move toward recovery - a recovery Republicans hope to see well before the November elections.

Democrats are also thinking of November and see more votes added to their column the longer recovery is delayed. They aim to convince Texans that the Reagan administration's policies are undermining even the Lone Star State's booming economy.

US Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, facing a tough Republican challenge, says that Texas is ''feeling the effects of the nationwide recession.'' Arthur E. (Buddy) Temple , one leading Democratic contender in the governor's race, has made a campaign promise to provide ''Texas jobs for Texas people.'' That phrase reflects growing concern here that far too many jobs go either to illegal aliens filtering up from the south or else ''Yankees'' migrating down from the North.

The Republican defense is to ask voters for a little more time before rejecting the President's recovery package.

Yet even loyal Reagan backers admit that the nation's recession has in fact spread into Texas. And they recognize that visible signs of a turnaround must come well before November or Republicans will lose many of the votes picked up in recent elections.

One executive in a major Houston firm that has laid off several hundred workers says simply that ''nobody in Texas is hiring. Sunbelt companies are not recruiting now, because the jobs aren't there and aren't expected to be there,'' he says, explaining how deeply the recession is affecting Texas and neighboring states.

Charles C. Holt, director of the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Texas at Austin, however, sees such problems as part of ''a temporary adjustment process.'' He points out that the current 5.7 percent Texas unemployment rate ''is comparable to the national targets way back in the Kennedy administration when we talked about 4 percent being full employment.''

Professor Holt sees a steady flow of newcomers to Texas because ''there is no question that there is a lot of economic opportunity down here.'' Citing strong energy and electronics industries, Dallas's position as a major distribution center for the Southwest, and ''the Frost Belt move away from northern climates, '' he forecasts that ''manufacturing here is going to expand dramatically.'' As a result, he says, Northerners will continue heading south ''whether Texans like it or not.''

Continuing Sunbelt growth will create new demands for water, schools, and all public services. But Texas can handle such needs, Holt says. ''On the state level we have not increased taxes for 10 years, so there is a real revenue base which can be tapped,'' he explains, ''and lots of people here want to see the economic stimulus that comes with growth.''

Kent Fuller, the Houston Chamber of Commerce economic development manager, agrees that both Houston and Texas are ''in a strong position economically.'' He sees Houston leading once again, leaping from its record of creating an average of 67,000 new jobs per year over the past decade to an average of 87,000 per year over the next 10 years.

Without the skills and manpower that have flowed into Texas from the North, ''It would never have been possible to accomplish what we have accomplished here ,'' says Mr. Fuller.

He says the chamber now gets some 4,500 inquiries per month from Northerners considering moving to Texas, up from 2,500 at the end of 1981. In reply to potential newcomers, Fuller says, ''The Texas Employment Commission and the Chamber are recommending that rather than just pick up and come to Houston,'' newcomers should:

* ''Have a skill that is compatible with this local economy;''

* ''Identify'' likely employment opportunities beforehand by reading Houston newspaper want ads;

* ''Be able to sustain themselves for three or four months, be financially independent for that period of time.''

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