- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2001

RICHMOND When Virginia legislators want to decide how much they can spend and borrow, they do so according to the figures produced by Ronald L. Tillett.

As the state's secretary of finance under Gov. James S. Gilmore III, Mr. Tillett is the one who helped sell voters on the governor's transportation program during the 1999 legislative campaign and convinced the legislature in 1998 that the state could afford the governor's car-tax cut, even as estimates of its cost were ballooning.

This year, he has to convince legislators all over again that they can afford to keep the car-tax cut on its original schedule.

The governor wants to move the rebate to 70 percent this year, and the House has approved a budget that would do so, but the Senate has proposed increasing it only from 47.5 percent to 50 percent.

The higher increase could be a tough sell for Mr. Tillett, who has been accused of politicizing a previously apolitical job.

But then, Mr. Tillett thinks the state has the money to go ahead with the car-tax cut while keeping the state's fiscal house in order by cutting government, as the governor has proposed.

"This is not a tough trim-back in government. I've got to tell you, I've been through tough trims. This is not it," he says. "They're still so far ahead of where they were three years ago, and light years ahead of where they were in the early '90s."

And, like Mr. Gilmore, Mr. Tillett truly believes in the benefit of tax cuts.

"In my view, one of the true benefits of tax relief is it restricts the size and growth of government. So this creates a wonderful opportunity by forcing and continuing our tax-relief initiatives, it allows us to continue to bring the size and growth of government down, and that's a good thing," he said.

Mr. Tillett has proposed programs that he and the governor call creative, like taking a lump-sum payment for the state's tobacco settlement. But opponents call some of his proposals "slick" and not in keeping with Virginia's tradition of fiscal prudence.

Throughout his career in Virginia finances, Mr. Tillett, 45, has become wholly aware of that tradition.

He started 23 years ago as a member of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the legislature's watchdog. He then went to the House Appropriations Committee for five sessions, before going to the Treasury Department as chief deputy. He was state treasurer under Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and then George F. Allen, eventually becoming Mr. Allen's finance secretary.

Mr. Tillett was instrumental in a study that led to the creation of the Debt Capacity Advisory Committee, which tells lawmakers how much money they can borrow without threatening the state's bond ratings.

In addition to being the point man for the governor's proposals, Mr. Tillett is Virginia's ambassador to the bond ratings agencies. Once a year, he calls people from the three ratings agencies together and brings them in to explain the state's financial picture.

Some legislators say Mr. Tillett is as devoted to the state's bond rating as anyone else in state government.

But his legislative opponents say he's got other priorities.

"[Mr.] Tillett is a professional who, I believe, has gone over to the other side the political side and it does not serve Virginia finance well," said Kenneth R. Plum, Fairfax Democrat and member of the House Finance Committee.

His opponents hold up Mr. Tillett's proposal to take the state's yearly income from the settlement with tobacco companies in an up-front lump-sum payment as an example of mismanagement.

"I believe that we are pursuing a dangerous policy in terms of finances in Virginia that are based on short-term decisions how do we get though this year? with little or no concern for the long haul," Mr. Plum said. "I fault Secretary Tillett for not standing up as part of the administration and part of Virginia government for not saying, 'This is not the way we do business.' "

The tobacco concept is likely dead for the year, but Mr. Tillett defends it, having twice proposed it to pay for the governor's proposals. During the 1999 legislative campaign, when all 140 assembly seats were up for election, Democrats were running hard on the lack of progress on transportation in Northern Virginia. Mr. Tillett led the team that put together the governor's $2.5 billion, six-year "Innovative Progress" package based on taking the tobacco funds in a lump sum.

"We put the Innovative Progress together, all the bits and pieces of it, packaged it, finished it up, had a press conference in Northern Virginia, and we went through all of that process. We had about 25 newspaper articles the next day; there wasn't another article on transportation until after the election. Shut it down," he recalls.

The legislature rejected taking the tobacco payment in a lump sum in 2000, but Mr. Tillett came back with a modified proposal this year. He proposed taking the money up-front, but putting it into a trust fund where it would earn interest and it could pay for capital projects something the bond markets approved of.

But again the legislature would not follow along, saying it would absorb future revenues.

This year's session is a good example of the power Mr. Tillett has over the state's $48 billion, two-year budget, because it shows how the assembly has to play by his figures. When December's revenue numbers showed the state was near zero-growth for the first half of the fiscal year, lawmakers balked at his official prediction of 3.8 percent growth for the year. But they have little choice but accept his numbers, even if they don't quite believe them.

So the budget will be written to his projections.

Mr. Tillett's relationship with the legislature is shaped by his having served so many years as a staff member. He seems thoroughly to enjoy the give-and-take sessions with them, and can be most impressive when he's advocating what he believes in.

"Some may view that as slick," he said. "I view it as very knowledgeable of the financial markets, very knowledgeable of the Virginia economy, and very knowledgeable of what Virginia can do."

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