AUSTIN, Texas -- Ooops. A $610 million deficit in Texas' famously balanced budget just happened to G.W. Bush on his way to the White House.

Of all the things you know you shouldn't say in this world, is there any sweeter satisfaction than, "Told you so"? I'm also telling you this deficit is going to get a lot bigger.

As a Republican legislator remarked sourly several months ago, "I actually hope Bush loses just so he'll he have to be here to face the mess he's made."

Many and complicated are the ways of the Texas budget, and according to the state comptroller, we should get a $1 billion surplus out of state taxes, so the shortfall is covered for now. If the economy remains strong. If the desperately poor in our "soft-landing, slowing economy" so shrewdly planned by Fed chief Alan Greenspan don't decide to apply for the social services that they are entitled to.

The dirty little secret of Texas government is that the way we keep it solvent is by shorting the poor. We go to great pains NOT to let people who are qualified for Medicaid know they are qualified, and then we make it incredibly difficult for them to apply.

As our Health Commissioner Reyn Archer, in one of his moments of disastrous frankness, told The New York Times anent the 600,000 poor children in this state who are eligible for Medicaid but not enrolled: "The problem is that the legislature knows if we are successful and we get all those kids enrolled they would not balance their budgets. It's not one person saying, 'Don't do this,' not one agency saying, 'Don't do this.' It's sort of, 'Why would we all rock the boat at this point?'"

Just the other day, a study by the Food Research and Action Center ranked Texas 44th in the country in percentage of eligible children participating in the federal summer lunch program. We have 1.5 million poor kids eligible for the program, and 142,374 were participating as of July.

Yup, that's the way we do it in Texas: The motto of our social services is "Don't ask, don't tell." We don't even tell when it's federal money paying for the deal.

But you notice that this deficit has appeared at a time when we are not only still keeping eligibility a deep, dark secret -- we are in mid-boom. This is not a hopeful sign.

It has been an open secret in Austin for several months that one state agency after another was going into the red. So everyone who told Dubya not to insist on the $1.7 billion tax cut can now stand up and take a bow. Special thanks to House Speaker Pete Laney, who himself insisted on using some of the last budget surplus to pay off bond issues, so we aren't even deeper in debt.

An equal act of folly was to leave almost nothing (by state budget standards) in the Rainy Day Fund. Since you can count on unexpected contingencies to upset the budget, there's supposed to be enough in there to cover them, but there's not. This is the kind of thing that drives budget planners batty.

And although it's very nice that we are expecting a $1 billion surplus, the fact is that it will be gobbled up by increasing expenses so fast that you bettern not blink or you'll miss it. The state has more people moving in every day, not to mention our native offspring; we have to build schools for them all, provide roads for them to drive on, find places in the prisons for the malefactors, find places in the universities and so forth.

And to top it all off, after the bean-boggling prison-building boom of the early '90s, we are now told that we need more prisons. The only reason we need more prisons is because of our insane drug laws and because Bush has shut down the parole system, but that's another story.

(You'll be happy to know that those who cover the parole board finally have a theory about how it works: Its actions are so inscrutable, incomprehensible and apparently random that we now think they just refuse parole to anyone whose middle name is Wayne or Lee, and that happens to be everybody in prison.)

Another thing that's no secret here in Low-Tax Low-Serviceville is that even given the minimal services we provide, the state is stretched to the breaking point. It gets harder and harder to find people who will work for state salaries. There's been a concentration of high salaries at the top, with a consequent doubling-up of jobs at the lower echelons. This is not a pretty sight.

So we can all look forward to the first session of the new millennium. Budget hell again. Thanks, governor.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.