Originally created 01/19/01

Economic aide budgets his words



ATLANTA - Georgia has experienced its longest-running economic boom in history and been through half a dozen recessions since Hank Thomassen began advising the state's governors on fiscal matters 35 years ago.

But whether it was Carl Sanders, Lester Maddox or, in recent days, Roy Barnes, that advice has never wavered.

Whether Georgia was riding the wave of high-tech economic progress of the past eight years or weathering the deep recession that then-Gov. Zell Miller inherited in 1991, Mr. Thomassen's formula for state budget writers has been a model of consistency: Set your revenue estimates low so you don't spend more than you collect in taxes.

"This has always been my philosophy," Mr. Thomassen said this week outside the Capitol's Appropriations Room after his annual revenue-estimate presentation to lawmakers. "There are some political costs, but we can handle excess (revenue) without disrupting programs and people's lives and agency's lives ... If we fall short, we'll have something to roll forward."

Mr. Thomassen is self-effacing about his influence on the revenue estimates that come out of the governor's office each year.

"I don't have a license to make revenue estimates," he quipped Tuesday to members of the House and Senate appropriations committees opening their review of Barnes' $15.4 billion budget proposal for the coming fiscal year. "There's only one license, and Roy Barnes has that license."

But there's an authoritative air to the tall, lean, white-haired and bespectacled Mr. Thomassen. He comes across like the economics professor he once was at such institutions as the University of Nebraska, Emory University and Georgia State University, with just enough humor in his delivery to keep the attention of his students, nowadays budget office staffers and legislators.

"He can make some pretty dull stuff interesting," said Jerry Crockett, deputy director of the state Office of Planning and Budget, the agency where Mr. Thomassen works.

Mr. Thomassen may have an easier selling job than usual this year pedaling Mr. Barnes' conservative revenue estimates.

The governor is forecasting that the state will take in $14.4 billion in revenues during fiscal 2002, which starts July 1. The projected increase of 7.3 percent is smaller than in the two prior fiscal years.

Mr. Thomassen warned lawmakers Tuesday that there are clear signs in both Georgia and across the country of a weakening economy, a trend he characterized as a "slowdown" rather than a full-fledged recession. He said personal consumption the results in sales taxes is down - particularly of durable items like furniture, cars and appliances - while corporate investment and profits that result in income taxes also are declining.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.