RICHMOND, SEPT. 18 -- A Virginia Senate panel angrily accused a top aide to Gov. L. Douglas Wilder today of trying to hide information about the administration's budget cuts, the latest sign that Wilder and the General Assembly may be on a collision course over the state's fiscal crisis.
During an unusually tense hearing, members of a Senate Finance subcommittee grilled Economic Development Secretary Lawrence H. Framme III over Wilder's plan to eliminate some state agencies without approval from the legislature. When Framme declined to answer, two of the Senate's most influential members lectured him sharply.
"Don't play cat and mouse with me," snapped state Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Mount Vernon), chairman of the economic development subcommittee.
"You have been most evasive -- non-responsive," Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton) told Framme. "That's not the way to cooperate with a legislative body. We'd get along much better if you'd lay all your cards on the table."
Wilder, Andrews and Gartlan are all Democrats, but the governor's independent response to a projected $1.4 billion budget shortfall has created divisions within the party.
Christopher J. Spanos, a lobbyist and legislative observer for more than a decade, said he has "never seen an exchange between a Cabinet officer and a committee" as hostile as today's.
The clash was over Wilder's plan to eliminate funding for the relatively small Department of World Trade, a cut that legislators said goes far beyond the 25 percent reductions they believe the governor is authorized to make without legislative consent.
But more significant than the $4.1 million trade agency, legislators said, was the issue of whether Wilder is grasping for power at the General Assembly's expense.
"Believe it or not, we write the budget," Andrews said sarcastically to another Wilder aide earlier in the hearing.
Nonetheless, Virginia's system of a part-time legislature gives governors more authority than virtually any other state.
Many of Wilder's cuts have already been implemented -- a full four months before the General Assembly convenes in January.
Legislators asked Framme if he would provide them a written list of the cuts he and Wilder had ordered, along with the rationale for doing so. He declined to say if he'd comply.
Framme, who is frequently mentioned as a likely candidate for state attorney general in 1993, maintained that he is in no position to explain why the administration feels it can legally eliminate the trade agency. "Some philosophical discussion of the separation of powers was not what I was asked to be here for," he said.
Gartlan said the panel's questions illustrate "a profound discontent at the establishment of a precedent . . . that would set a benchmark for what a governor can do."