Gore visits Texas for bookkeeping brawl

But will state's budget overruns prove real campaign fodder for vice president?

It's a classic ploy in war and politics: Go to your enemy's home base, discover a weak point, and exploit it. Sam Houston did it to Mexican Gen. Santa Anna, who was taking a siesta, and boom, the Republic of Texas was born.

Now Al Gore is popping into Gov. George W. Bush's home of Texas, in an effort to exploit the state's budget cost overruns. But it's an open question whether his whistle-blowing tour will yield more than hot air. To some, the news that Texas agencies overspent their budgets by some $610 million is a clear sign of mismanagement or ineptitude by the state's leader. To others, the fact that the state has a $1.1 billion surplus, which could be used to pay for any overruns, makes this a nonissue.

What nearly everyone agrees, though, is that this is exactly the sort of issue that Mr. Bush doesn't want coming up just days before the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. And the reason this has come up at all, let alone gained national attention, is politics.

"He's the governor, and it happened on his watch, so this clearly is fair political game," says Bruce Buchanan, political scientist at University of Texas in Austin. "Now Gore has shown that he is not averse to overstating his case, so we'll see whether he generates any fire from this."

In many ways, Gore's trip to Texas resembles the highly effective visit by then-Vice President George Bush to the state of Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis. The issue then was pollution of Boston Harbor, and the state's inability to deal with it. In one swift move, the elder Bush took a Democratic strength - the environment - and turned it into a weakness. So, too, Gore hopes to turn a Republican strength - fiscal management - into a weakness in public minds.

Not uncapping red pen, yet

But the facts might get in his way. For one thing, state tax officials say that even if current projections continue, Texas will be able to pay all its bills without raising taxes or going in the red.

"If the legislature had to come to town today ... not only would there be enough money to pay the bills, but there'd be millions and millions to boot," says Carole Rylander, state comptroller of funds, who calculates the state's surplus at $1.1 billion.

But by releasing these budget figures some five months earlier than usual, some Democrats have charged that Ms. Rylander has "cooked the books" to make Bush look good. Others say the governor's determination to put through a $1.7 billion tax cut put the state in a precarious position.

"The benefits of Governor Bush's policies have been minimal, and the costs down the road will be high," says Molly Beth Malcolm, head of the state Democratic Party.

"But that is the story of George W. Bush's career. He takes advantage of other people's money, milks it for all it's worth, and then leaves a mess behind when it is time to move on down the road."

David Prindle, political scientist at University of Texas in Austin, says Bush's fellow Republicans have an incentive to work the numbers in their favor, and there is a long history of state officials doing just that.

History of creative accounting

"Over the years, the comptroller has been able to find or lose millions of dollars, depending on what he or she wants done," Mr. Prindle says. "What we're dealing with are estimates, and estimates can't be false; they can only be found to be more or less accurate over time."

Complicating matters is the culture of distrust that Texas has enshrined in its state constitution. By state law, the legislature meets only every other year, and then only for 144 days. In planning their two-year budgets, lawmakers and agencies must project their costs far in advance. It's a system that almost always requires a little tweaking.

"It is virtually business as usual," says GOP Senate leader Bill Ratliff. "In my 12 years of the Senate, every time we meet we have to pass what is termed an emergency appropriation, but it is not an emergency."

Pricey prisons

The chief culprits in this year's budget overruns are burgeoning prisons and rising prescription-drug costs. Because of stricter sentencing laws, fewer prisoners have been paroled in the past year, adding $130 million. Add to this some $300 million for the growing use of new, pricey prescription drugs, and state budgeteers are suddenly scrambling to balance their books.

But supporters point out that the projected overruns represent less than 1 percentage point of the $90 billion state budget. And for Glen Castlebury, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the costs have not been unexpected.

The state just finished an expensive 10-year expansion of its prison system. In addition, in the past two years, it has been renting space from county jails as a way to house all its prisoners.

As for cost overruns, this is not the largest budget shortfall in Texas history - in fact, it's not even the largest of the 1990s. In 1995, just after Gov. Ann Richards left office, the legislature had to pass an emergency bill to cover a $1.6 billion shortfall.

"That has been the way Texas has done things, at least since I've come to this office in 1958," says Mr. Castlebury. "That's 42 long years. And in my book, it's been a real success."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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