Gore Visits Texas for Bookkeeping Brawl ; but Will State's Budget Overruns Prove Real Campaign Fodder for Vice President?

Article excerpt

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. …