Texas governor takes aim at sluggish economy

Texas's new governor is playing a new tune. Instead of boasting about Texas biggests and bests, Democratic Gov. Mark White warns that the state's serious economic problems seem to be worsening.

One hundred days into his four-year term, the former Texas attorney general said in a Monitor interview that with Texas unemployment now nearly 9 percent, ''What I'm trying to do is face the facts and let the people know that we don't need more workers in Texas, we need more jobs.''

Perhaps because ousted Republican Gov. William Clements came straight into politics from the boom-and-bust oil industry (and went straight back after Governor White's upset victory in November), Mr. Clements liked to assure Texans that the state would shake off the recession quicker than any other state and return to oil-fueled boom times. Conservative Democrat White says instead that the most important lesson of the current hard times is that ''for the first time the state has a better understanding among people here that we cannot rely forever on oil and gas to be the base industry.''

To counter problems caused by overdependence on the cyclical oil industry, White promises ''to broaden our base.''

''I am going to be very active and aggressive in searching out new industries for our state,'' he says. But mounting the search won't be easy, he admits, because Texas has been hit unexpectedly hard by the triple blow of declining oil and gas revenues, the effects of a major national recession, and the spillover impact of Mexico's economic turmoil.

Economists differ in their estimates of how much recession-reduced purchasing power outside Texas has undermined demand for Texas goods and services. But according to a recent report issued by Texas Comptroller Bob Bullock, every $1 drop in the price of a barrel of Texas crude oil translates directly into a $40 million drop in oil severance tax revenue and a $30 million less in sales tax revenue for the state.

With its share of oil industry earnings down sharply following the $5 plunge of world oil prices from $34 to $29 a barrel, Texas simply has less to spend. So along with most other state governors, White is being driven by the fiscal squeeze into trying to trim state spending enough to avoid the politically costly step of imposing new taxes.

Just as he did during last autumn's bitter gubernatorial campaign, White continues to blame many of Texas's current problems on his predecessor and on the Reagan administration.

''The Reagan administration has been very quick to bail out the international bankers,'' White says, ''but the Republicans have forgotten about the people of the United States.'' He says Clements pushed Texas into more severe problems because ''his longstanding statements about how great things were in Texas induced people who were in terrible financial straits in other states to come to Texas looking for work.''

In his state capitol office midway between House and Senate chambers, White charges that by scrimping on state funds for vital programs such as education, welfare, and highways, ''my predecessor . . . failed to recognize the real needs of the people of this state and his policy was rejected at the polls.''

White adds that the great tragedy is that ''we should have taken these steps to improve conditions back in my predecessor's time when there was a great deal more money available.''

The governor is particularly incensed about underfunding for education. ''You see the neglect of my predecessor when he let schoolteachers be paid less money than prison guards in their first day in training,'' White says, ''so that a four-year BA graduate at minimum levels in about 500 of our school districts will be making about $11,100 a year.'' White is fighting for a two-year, 24 percent pay hike for teachers but now recognizes it may be impossible to force this large an increase through the Texas Legislature.

If White does win a pay boost for teachers, more job-training funds, and a bond issue for highways, it will be through convincing Texans that such investments are needed for sound economic reasons. Attracting new industry, he insists, depends on providing good state services - starting with ''quality education at every level.'' He's also trying to raise Texas from ranking 49th in the level of welfare aid to families with dependent children.

Citing unemployment figures that range up to 50 percent in some areas near the Mexican border, White explains that ''you find that those areas where we have the highest quality educational resources, with the best educated population, have the least unemployment.''

''And you find Massachusetts, for instance, having made a commitment to education and diversification years ago, has lower unemployment rates than we have in Texas,'' he adds.

Corporate executives who consider setting up plants in Texas ask first of all about education, White says. The computer and other high-technology industries Texas needs, he explains, want quality universities to provide a flow of new employees and want quality elementary and secondary schools because ''all their employees are going to be well trained and well educated, and they will want the same educational opportunities for their children.''

''When you neglect educational quality as my predecessor did,'' White says, ''you in effect have turned your back on the burgeoning new industry of this country.''

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