Tension builds over automatic spending cuts set to take place Jan. 2

wcrenshaw@macon.comOctober 6, 2012 

WARNER ROBINS -- Day by day, the sound of an oncoming train called sequestration is getting louder.

The term is Washington-speak for the massive across-the-board automatic spending cuts set to take place Jan. 2. Under the 2011 Budget Control Act, the cuts can be stopped only if Congress reaches an agreement to reduce spending by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years.

Efforts to reach that agreement so far have failed. Without it, sequestration would apply those cuts evenly across basically all federal programs except for entitlements, although Medicare would see a 2 percent cut.

The impact would be widespread, but for Middle Georgia the greatest pain would be felt at Robins Air Force Base.

“If sequestration kicks in, our community should certainly expect to see some number of civilians at Robins Air Force Base furloughed for some undefined period of time,” said retired Maj. Gen. Robert McMahon, now head of the 21st Century Partnership, which works to support Robins. “What that number is and how long it is, no one can tell you today, but clearly that would be the impact.”

According to a White House Office of Management and Budget analysis, sequestration in the first year would mean a 9.4 percent cut in nearly all aspects of defense spending, with the exceptions being military salaries and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Sequestration impacts far more than the military. Spending ranging from education programs to farm subsidies and Meals on Wheels would be cut by either 7.6 percent or 8.2 percent, depending on the program.

Houston County schools Superintendent Robin Hines said likely the biggest impact for the system would be cuts in Title I spending. Those federal grants are used to help schools based on the number of students on free or reduced price lunches.

The school system is getting $6.3 million in Title I money this year for 23 eligible schools. However, unlike the base, the impact of the sequestration cut would not be felt until next year because the school funding is already in place. Most Bibb County schools are Title I.

Regardless, the ramifications are still troubling to Hines and not just for the finances of the school system.

“Obviously I’m concerned on many different levels,” he said. “My biggest concern is our defense. Our military has done a great job, and it would just have a devastating effect.”

The largest portion of the school system’s $26 million in federal funds is $10 million for free and reduced price lunches. Some have said that money would be protected from sequestration, but Georgia Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza said in an e-mail there are “too many unknowns” to say whether school nutrition funds would be exempt.

Another Middle Georgia organization that would take a hit is Fort Valley State University. The College of Agriculture, Family Sciences and Technology is funded by federal dollars, and sequestration would likely mean layoffs, said Dean Govind Kannan.

“It would have a tremendous impact,” he said.

Budget Control Act sets stage for cuts

When Congress passed the Budget Control Act more than a year ago, the sequestration mechanism was never meant to happen. The idea behind it was that the blanket cuts to the military and social programs would be so disagreeable to both parties that there would be no choice but to reach a compromise.

As it turns out, the law overestimated the bipartisan spirit in Congress, and the committee appointed to reach that agreement failed.

With legislators now in recess, the hopes of stopping sequestration are pinned on finding a compromise in the narrow window between the presidential election and Jan. 2, with the holidays and other important issues thrown in to heighten the challenge.

Eighth District U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ashburn, who defied his party leadership to vote against the Budget Control Act, said he is hopeful an agreement can be reached.

Scott said he believes the military cuts called for in the Budget Control Act, whether through sequestration or a compromise, are too much and would threaten national security. His alternative is to achieve a lower amount of cuts by asking base commanders to cut one percent per year for the next three years.

“I think that’s a much better solution than Congress telling the base commanders you are going to cut across all areas,” he said.

Automatic cuts unprecedented

Before his retirement in June, McMahon commanded the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center. When he entered the Air Force in 1978, the organization had 600,000 uniformed airmen. Today that number is 328,000, which means McMahon has seen more than his share of downsizing through the years.

However, he said he never faced anything like sequestration.

According to the White House analysis, it will mean that come Jan. 2, the military will have to cut $54 billion in spending for the current fiscal year. Since the first quarter of the year will already have gone by, it makes the challenge even greater.

McMahon said the cuts he dealt with came with advance notice and careful planning, where sequestration is surrounded with uncertainty.

“We dramatically downsized the Air Force over my 34 years, so we know how to do that,” McMahon said. “But each time we did it there was a structured environment to do it in. It was painful, but the difference here is as much uncertainty as there is, we can’t tell people what to expect. No one’s quite sure at this point what to expect.”

One example of a planned cut came from the Budget Control Act -- separate from sequestration -- that mandated $487 billion in defense spending cuts over 10 years. Those cuts are already in place, and Robins dealt with them largely through voluntary early retirements, with no one forced out of a job. About 1,000 positions were impacted, including 681 people who took early retirement and 154 who moved to other positions. The rest were vacant positions that were eliminated.

Sequestration calls for an additional $492 billion in military cuts over the next 10 years.

If Congress comes to an agreement to avoid sequestration, it will still mean substantial cuts, but at least those can be targeted and planned, Scott said.

“I think everybody would be better off in a targeted approach,” Scott said. “The people who know the most about where we could reduce spending at Robins Air Force Base are the men and women at Robins Air Force Base.”

Defense industry jobs impacted

Georgia’s economy is heavily dependent on the defense industry and not just jobs on bases.

According to the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, defense accounts for $19 billion of the state’s economy.

How sequestration might impact the state as a whole is hard to tell, said retired Army Maj. Gen. David Bockel, executive director of the chamber’s Georgia Military Affairs Coordinating Committee.

“The whole thing is a mystery right now,” he said.

He said the cuts could impact each base differently. One key is that President Barack Obama exercised an option allowed in the law to exempt military pay.

That’s good news for military members, but not so good for bases like Robins where the majority of its 23,000 employees are civilians. It means the civilians will bear a greater proportion of the impact.

However, Bockel said even bases made up largely of military members could see losses if the Department of Defense chooses to achieve cuts by moving units to other bases.

The National Association of Manufacturers commissioned a sequestration study that was conducted by Inforum, a research center at the University of Maryland. The study, based on an economic model, concluded a total of 1.2 million jobs lost as a result of sequestration in the first two years. It estimates 38,700 jobs would be lost in Georgia.

Some have questioned whether those figures are an exaggeration. Bockel said he doubts the validity of any estimate because the uncertainties around sequestration are too great.

Brad Fink, board chairman of the 21st Century Partnership, said he is concerned Congress hasn’t shown any signs of coming to agreement to stop sequestration.

“There are so many unknowns, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of people planning for it because everybody is hoping it’s going to be pushed down the road,” he said.

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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