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Politicians of Both Sides Want to Tax Imported Crude : Ill Economy Dominates Campaigns in Oil Patch

October 13, 1986|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — Here in the oil patch, where the economy has gone bust, where hundreds of thousands of people are out of work, the politicians are like a chorus whose song would get them the hook anywhere else.

Republican and Democratic candidates, almost to a man, want to tax imported oil, which would in turn enable domestic producers to raise their prices. In Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, which produce about half the country's crude oil, it is a soulful song indeed.

But the future of such a fee, which would immediately be felt by consumers at the gas pump, is probably zilch. In Louisiana last month for example, Republican Rep. W. Henson Moore, who is running for the U.S. Senate, gave a visiting President Reagan a "warning" that he would push for the oil import fee if elected. Reagan, who is opposed to such a fee, deflected the issue by replying that he would order a study of the matter.

Great Deal at Stake

So it goes in the Energy Belt, where futility seems to be the byword in the campaigning this year.

A great deal is at stake in the Nov. 4 election. Two governorships and two U.S. Senate seats are on the ballots, along with 41 congressional races. The Senate seats are critical to Democratic hopes for retaking that chamber, where Republicans now hold a 53-47 edge. The outcome in the governors' and House races will go a long way toward determining the validity of Republican claims that a realignment of party loyalties in the South and Southwest is under way.

But neither the Republicans or Democrats have been able to seize the issue of the depressed economy and use it across the board against the opposition. As the oil import issue illustrates, neither side has been able to identify itself as the sole possessor of a solution to the economic doldrums. What's worse, voters have no clear choices about whom to blame.

'A Little Confusing'

"The issue is a little confusing because the three governors are Democrats, and a national Administration with a Republican President is in power," said Richard Murray, a political analyst and pollster who teaches at the University of Houston. "It's not an issue that works for either party."

In a poll Murray conducted several weeks ago, 43% blamed President Reagan for the hard times in Texas. At the same time, 54% said they blamed Democratic Gov. Mark White for the economic problems of the state.

The crisis in the oil business permeates the three states, affecting everyone from the very rich to the very poor. Louisiana's unemployment hovers at 12%, and Texas and Oklahoma are not far behind.

The deflationary effects of the oil price collapse have been ruinous on campaign coffers as well.

Texas Republican Chairman George Strake said the party has had only 190 donations of $1,000 or more, contrasted with 380 in 1984.

'People Don't Have It'

"Our large contributors have declined considerably because a lot of that money came out of the oil patch and now they don't have it to give," he said.

Jim Brady, Louisiana's Democratic chairman, put it much the same way: "Contributions are down because those people flat don't have it."

The lack of money could have a national impact as well. The Energy Belt, particularly Dallas and Houston, has traditionally been a place where nationally known politicians have bellied up to the funding trough. That is not happening this time around and there is a sense that if it continues, the Republican Party could be hurt in the 1988 presidential campaign. One Houston banker with ties to the GOP said a continued downturn could lead to "a certain amount of hostility to the national Republican process, the feeling the people in Washington have turned their back on the oil industry."

Voters Seem Distracted

Oilman T. Boone Pickens, a major Republican fund-raiser in Texas, said: "I'd be foolish to say there won't be some who'll feel that way."

Meanwhile, voters themselves seem a bit distracted, making the outcomes difficult to forecast.

"What's dominating the people's thoughts is the economy," said Jerry Fowler, the Louisiana commissioner of elections. "The farmers are having a hard time. The oil business is in trouble and that is our backbone. The people don't worry about politics, they worry about eating."

The rundown on the key races:

Louisiana: Moore and Democratic Rep. John B. Breaux are vying for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by retiring Russell B. Long. Moore, who would be the first Republican senator from Louisiana since Reconstruction, is the front-runner in opinion polls.

Reagan Extremely Popular

Moore portrays himself as a Reagan man in a state where the President is extremely popular. He has tried to connect Breaux with Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, who was acquitted in recent months of corruption charges, and place the blame on the old-line Democratic Party machine as the source of the state's ills.

Breaux lambastes the Republican Administration that will have nothing to do with an oil import fee. And both talk about how Louisiana must diversify if it is to survive.

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