Va.'s Money Man Adds Pizazz to His Math
By Craig Timberg
In state government, he's a seer, a budgeter, a wheeler, a dealer. He's a trusted adviser and a sure-footed opponent. And as the governor and 140 state lawmakers wrestle over a surplus approaching $1 billion in the closing weeks of the legislative session, he is the unlikely referee.
His title is state finance secretary, but Tillett is the guy who makes the financial forecasts that largely will determine the size of your car-tax refund check, or whether anybody gets a college tuition cut or tax break at the grocery store.
Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) and the General Assembly spend the money, but not until Tillett, 43, says how much. He forecasts the size of the surplus and the economic prospects for future years both key factors in any tax or spending plan. And then, after setting the financial rules of the game, Tillett jumps in on the governor's side.
He might reverse the order of that description. "My number one priority is to help the governor achieve his objectives. That's why I'm his secretary," said Tillett, who is so self-assured that even in this conservative capital he wears a goatee and chemically induced blond streaks in his hair.
His number two priority? "Honest and reliable information to the legislature."
Leaders of both parties praise Tillett's financial acumen. This month, Governing magazine ranked Virginia one of the two top states in the country for financial management, a testimony to Tillett and generations of prudence among state finance directors. He also is widely credited with helping save Gilmore's promise to eliminate the car tax last year after the cost ballooned to double what he had estimated during the 1997 campaign.
Yet it is Tillett's against-type manner that often gets noticed. "He's everything you wouldn't expect in a finance guy," said Gilmore adviser Ray Allen, who once interviewed a job candidate over the phone for several minutes before realizing it was Tillett playing a prank. "He dresses flashy. He has a joke for you every time you meet him. . . . He's just mischievous."
But Tillett has pushed the traditional limits of the job in ways that trouble Democrats, prompting calls for the General Assembly to begin doing its own financial projections as a balance to the power of a finance secretary who has become much more than a number cruncher.
Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax), who regularly tangles with Tillett during the finance secretary's appearances before the House Appropriations Committee, said Tillett is just one example of the growing partisanship in the highest reaches of the executive branch. A governor's top deputies serve at his pleasure, but Plum, who is the state Democratic Party chairman, said finance secretaries and others with crucial administrative jobs used to seem more like professional civil servants than administration lobbyists.
"For Ron Tillett, I'd use [the word] 'slick.' And that doesn't make me particularly comfortable," Plum said. "I'm not sure when he's making a report whether he's giving me the straight numbers or whether he's trying to sell me something."
Tillett was born and raised in Norfolk by a banker mother and a father who was a civilian worker at the massive naval base there. He studied political science at Old Dominion University and Virginia Commonwealth University, but he said his first professional skills were financial, learned when he was an analyst for the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission and the House Appropriations Committee.
"I'm probably a numbers guy who learned the politics," he said.
Though a Republican of the low-tax, small-government school, Tillett has worked only for the state. After nearly a decade as a legislative staff member, he became deputy state treasurer at the behest of a Democratic governor, Gerald L. Baliles, in 1987.
Another Democratic governor, L. Douglas Wilder, elevated Tillett to state treasurer in 1993. He was promoted to secretary of finance to then-Gov. George Allen, a Republican, in 1996 and has kept the job despite a fractious administration turnover when Gilmore became governor last year.
Friends and detractors both marvel at his ambition and agility at surviving so many power shifts. They also admire his gregarious personality and command of the state's complex finances.
His stock has only risen in the Gilmore administration, which has at its heart tax cuts and carefully targeted spending proposals, such as the 20 percent cut in public college tuition that both parties have embraced.
Making these Gilmore priorities work, both financially and politically, is Tillett's biggest job. The car-tax cut, which will eventually cost $1 billion a year, won't be phased in fully unless Tillett's forecasts for tax receipts and economic performance stay on track. Likewise for cutting the tax on groceries nearly in half, a Democratic priority Gilmore has adopted as his own this legislative session.
The forecasts, Tillett said, are based on more than 1,000 economic models created by a half-dozen staff researchers. The nearly $1 billion surplus that Gilmore and the General Assembly are spending this legislative session is based on Tillett's estimate that the state economy will stay so hot that tax receipts will run 8.6 percent higher than last year's.
Anticipating a mild slowdown in June 2000, he has estimated revenue growth in the next two years at 5 percent enough to keep Gilmore's plans on track while allowing the governor to cast the Democrats' bigger tax cut and spending package as irresponsible.
Such tactical advantages Gilmore, after all, has the first look at Tillett's numbers drive Democrats crazy, adding fuel to charges that Tillett is more political than his predecessors, that his economic forecasts are spin over substance. That he's slick.
To that, Tillett throws back his head and laughs. "I know my business. I know what I do," he said. Then, recalling a few of his hours-long battles before the legislature's powerful money committees, he adds, "Some people might say that's slick. Some people might say that's well prepared."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company