RICHMOND In his first Cabinet-level appointment, Virginia Gov.-elect Mark R. Warner yesterday named state Senate Finance Committee Director John M. Bennett finance secretary.
Mr. Warner said the estimated $1.2 billion revenue shortfall in the current state budget calls for someone like Mr. Bennett, who has seen the state through tough economic times before.
Mr. Bennett, 52, has been staff director for the Senate Finance Committee since 1988. He was involved in drafting the last nine biennial state budgets, including the 1990-1992 budget when the state faced a $2.4 billion revenue shortfall.
“There are few individuals in Virginia with the strong fiscal credentials of John Bennett,” Mr. Warner said at a news conference. “His strong relationship with both the House and the Senate will be critical as we all come together to address Virginia’s fiscal challenges and opportunities.”
Mr. Bennett said he was proud to be selected for the post.
“I’m a little bit daunted by the task facing us. But I’m honored to serve as finance secretary,” he said.
Mr. Warner said he wanted to name a finance secretary first because he wants to be prepared to assess the upcoming budget, which outgoing Gov. James S. Gilmore III will present Dec. 19.
“I’m spending a great deal of my time focusing on the state’s financial situation,” Mr. Warner said. “We want to make sure we’re prepared to look at the governor’s choices and make assessments at that point.”
He also said he wants to be ready to deal with the possibility that this year’s shortfall could be larger than $1.2 billion. But, he added, “we’re going to work our way through this and Virginia will come out fiscally stronger.”
The current fiscal situation and the one in 1991 the last time the state had a recession are different, Mr. Bennett said. He said the current situation could be more manageable than the last because economists have predicted the recession this time round will be “short and relatively mild.”
“This is not 1991, even though it’s going to seem like 1991,” He said. “Is this deja vu? Sure. Many of the situations are not new. How we deal with them is always new.”
During his tenure as the committee’s staff director, Mr. Bennett has been involved in assessing the fiscal impact of abolishing parole, reforming the compensation system for state employees, and estimating the cost of eliminating the car tax.
A former teacher in Hampton, Va., Mr. Bennett also worked on structuring the state’s so-called “rainy-day” fund and putting together the state employee heath-insurance program.
L.F. Payne, chairman of Mr. Warner’s transition team, said Mr. Bennett is the best candidate for the job.
“Mr. Bennett is a good example of how people can work with both Democrats and Republicans and put Virginia first,” Mr. Payne said.
Mr. Warner and Mr. Bennett declined to discuss any plans to put the state’s economy back on track. However, Mr. Warner said he will look into financial models within the private sector that may help turn the state’s economy around.
Also yesterday, Mr. Warner named four others to serve as his Transition Finance Advisory Committee, which will advise Mr. Warner and Mr. Bennett in tackling both short-term and long-term challenges of the upcoming budget, assessing the state’s economic condition, and identifying ways to stimulate the economy.
The members of the finance transition team are J. Alfred Broaddus Jr., president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond; Scott D. Pattison, former director of the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget; Paul W. Timmreck, former finance secretary under Govs. L. Douglas Wilder and George F. Allen; and Christine Chmura, member of the Governor’s Advisory Board of Economists under Mr. Wilder, Mr. Allen and Mr. Gilmore.