"Let Them Eat Cake" Smirk Says

 AUSTIN -- Gov. George W. Bush's dismissive response to the state's fiscal
 problems jump-started critics yesterday, including Vice President Al Gore,
 who warned that such an approach could lead to federal deficits.

 Asked at a news conference Tuesday if he was worried about cash shortfalls
 emerging in some state programs -- just as he's touting tax cuts on the
 presidential campaign trail -- Bush said he hopes he won't have to deal with
 such things anymore.

 "It's a little early to project the amount of money the Legislature will be dealing with,
 and as you know I hope I'm not here to deal with it," Bush, the likely Republican
 presidential nominee, told reporters. "I'm seeking another office."

 Democrats and interest groups seized on Bush's comments, describing them as
 both callous and out of touch.

 "The last time I looked, he's still the governor of Texas," said state Sen.
 Mario Gallegos, D-Houston. "To say that he doesn't want to deal with it
 because he's looking for another job, I think that's wrong . . . especially
 if he wants to be dealing with Social Security and the federal budget."

 Likewise, a spokeswoman for the Gray Panthers, an Austin-based senior
 citizens group that hasn't been friendly to Bush, was critical of Bush's statements.

 "I think it shows his insensitivity to the people of Texas who are in need,"
 said Charlotte Flynn, state coordinator for the group. "My feeling is he does
 not understand in Texas what our basic needs are. I think what he's focused
 on is getting in the White House."

 Ray Sullivan, a spokesman for the Bush presidential campaign, called the attacks
 "disappointing" and stressed that the state will have ample resources to meet needs.

 "It's disappointing to see Texas Democrats get into the political mud with Al
 Gore since virtually every single one of them voted for the 2000-2001 state
 budget and the tax cuts approved by the Legislature and Gov. Bush."

 Gore, Bush's likely Democratic opponent, said those tax cuts are the reason
 budget deficits have developed and warned that Bush would do the same thing
 to the federal budget if elected president.

 "Now Gov. Bush says he wants to do for America what he's done for Texas -- go
 to Washington to spend our surplus and then more for budget- busting tax cuts,"
 Gore said yesterday during a campaign swing.

 Bush fired back, saying: "If Al Gore suggests a state with a surplus
 shouldn't cut taxes, how can the American people count on Al Gore to cut
 taxes when our nation is in surplus?" Bush aides and legislative leaders
 point out that the state is not in the midst of a fiscal crisis but instead
 has encountered higher-than-anticipated expenses.

 What that means is the state will, in the best-case scenario, have a smaller surplus
 than originally expected. Under the worst-case scenario, offered up by Lt. Gov. Perry,
 there will be no surplus at all but basic needs will still be met.

 That aside, the political implications of the budget flap and Bush's handling
 of it are potentially negative for Bush, said Prof. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a
 media expert at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the recent book,
 `Everything You Think You Know About Politics and Why You're Wrong.'

 "It would be less of a problem if he weren't running so heavily on his record
 as governor," she said, comparing his plight to that of 1988 Democratic
 presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, criticized for his shortcomings as
 governor of Massachusetts. "The tax cut is the center of the Bush presidential run,
 and his success as a tax-cutter is, as a result, something you look to."

 She also noted that if Bush tells voters he can't accurately predict state
 finances, it undermines his argument that there will be a huge federal
 surplus to direct toward tax cuts.

 Sullivan, the Bush campaign spokesman, said the governor was relying on "the
 best estimates" available from the agencies lawmakers use when divvying up
 government money -- both on the state and federal levels.

 Not everybody found Bush's comments offensive.

 John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers -- the state chapter
 of a national group that already has endorsed Gore -- said he took the
 hope-I'm-gone line from Bush as a joke.

 "It's refreshing candor," Cole said.
"We, for our part, hope he is here for three more years."