- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2001

RICHMOND Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III declared a temporary hiring freeze for state employees yesterday, an effort to prepare for spending cuts should the General Assembly fail to agree to budget revisions.

The governor also called for a freeze in discretionary spending, halted beginning construction or approving any new contracts for buildings, and called for each state agency to file a plan by Friday for how it could cut up to 15 percent of its budget if needed.

But he had few new details about the specific effects of the $420 million in cuts he might have to make over the next 16 months with $189 million needed in the next four months alone.

The assembly adjourned Saturday without revisions to the $50 billion, 2000-02 budget it passed last year and, barring a compromise some time in the next 45 days or so, the governor would be required to close the budget gap through cuts.

"All the actions we are taking are required by law and required by those acts," Mr. Gilmore, a Republican, said at a news conference yesterday. "It's not what I want to do, it's what I think I have to do in order to be responsible as governor and make sure that the public is protected and any impact on them is minimized."

The assembly deadlocked over the governor's plan to keep the rebate on the yearly personal property tax on cars on schedule by moving from a 47.5 percent rebate last year to 70 percent this year. The House stuck with the governor, but the Senate would move only to a 55 percent rebate.

They could agree on a plan in a special session in late March or early April, but only if the Senate completely caves in on its position something senators and the administration all see as very unlikely right now.

Senators have blamed the governor for failing to compromise on the car-tax rebate and said the governor should have to make the cuts, so that folks will know he is to blame.

So it likely will fall to the administration. Officials said the freezes announced yesterday are in effect until each agency has a new spending plan approved, based on their submitted plan for cuts, in the upcoming weeks.

But the governor's advisers said they didn't yet know details on what sorts of building projects would be halted, how many state employee positions are currently unfilled or what it would mean to cut discretionary spending.

Finance Secretary Ronald L. Tillett, who was at the news conference, said in his department it could mean eliminating non-mandatory travel, such as attending conferences, or not approving some management contracts.

One place likely to be affected by the changes is George Mason University, whose president, Alan G. Merten, said it was disappointing that higher education would take another hit this year.

He said he's been summoned to Richmond today to get instructions on complying with the governor's order. But he says he already knows what he'll have to consider: cutting some summer courses, freezing positions, cutting back financial aid and increasing class sizes.

He also said the governor's order might jeopardize construction of new buildings at all three campuses in Arlington, Prince William and Fairfax counties.

The governor has exempted state funds that go directly to education for kindergarten through 12th grade, as well as health and human services spending, from potential cuts.

Steve Vaughan, a spokesman for the House Democratic Caucus, said the governor made the same promises before releasing his revised budget in December but actually did cut from health care services in that budget.

The administration said those cuts were to services that were never used.

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