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Assessing Impact of Sequester Cuts at Local and Federal Levels

March 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
To learn how the sequester cuts will have impact on both the federal and local levels, Jeffrey Brown talks with Ed O'Keefe of the Washington Post, Karen Kasler of Ohio Public Television and Megan Verlee of Colorado Public Radio.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we return to our look at the impact of the sequestration cuts.

For a sense of what will happen at the federal level, we’re joined by Ed O’Keefe. He’s congressional correspondent for The Washington Post and has spent years covering federal agencies. And for some local consequences, we’re joined by two journalists from our public media partners. Karen Kasler is bureau chief for Ohio Public Television. Megan Verlee is state government reporter for Colorado Public Radio.

And, Ed, I want to start with you for an overview here in Washington. Where are we seeing or likely to see the most immediate impacts?

ED O’KEEFE, The Washington Post: Well, we have already gotten some indication from a few agencies this week that their furloughs will begin essentially within a month. We really won’t see most of the effects until later in March.

And so people shouldn’t wake up tomorrow morning thinking, oh, my gosh, the national parks are closed and the lines at the airports will grow long. We heard this week, for example, that the Justice Department, people who work for U.S. attorneys face furloughs of about 14 days, but not until late April. Folks at the National Labor Relations Board could face furloughs up to 22 days.

At the Pentagon, they have said that there are hundreds of thousands of civilian employees across the country could face furloughs also of 22 days. You might wonder why 22 days. Well, it’s because after 22 days, you have to lay someone off, and it’s actually more expensive to lay someone off than to just make them stay home for a few days.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is it your sense that all of these agencies and departments have a plan in place or that…

ED O’KEEFE:  They do.


ED O’KEEFE:  In fact, they have had plans in place really now for almost two years. You will recall back in the spring of 2011, there was a possibility of a government shutdown.

Well, contingency plans were being drawn up then. And they have been adapted ever since. A few months ago, the White House Budget Office asked these agencies to start putting together plans based on what the cuts would be. They didn’t take them too seriously, and only in the last few weeks have they really started to get down to the nitty-gritty of who might lose their job for how long and what services would be cut.

JEFFREY BROWN: Karen Kasler, what are you seeing in Ohio? Where — where — or how much is the state exposed? What particular areas?

KAREN KASLER, Ohio Public Radio: Well, Ohio is interesting, in that we’re not going to be as heavily impacted as some states like Virginia and Maryland, because the federal spending as a percentage of state GDP is pretty low, only about three percent in Ohio, actually less than three percent.

And so we’re talking about 26,000 civilians who work for military contractors, most of them based at our largest military installation, which is Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton. And then we have got some other state agencies that might see some impacts. For example, the Department of Education is reporting about $25 million dollars. The White House is actually saying this — about $25 million dollars could be cut to education, about $22 million dollars could be cut to education for children with disabilities — and those could be hundreds of teachers’ jobs — and also some Head Start positions, about 2,500, according to the White House, though our costs here are lower for Head Start.

So Head Start in Ohio is saying about 3,000 kids. And so those are the kind of impacts that we’re looking at. It’s a lot less than, though, than in some other states.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Megan Verlee, well, what about in Colorado? You have got a lot going on there with federal spending, right?

MEGAN VERLEE, Colorado Public Broadcasting: Well, I think, by definition, we are some other states in comparison to Ohio.

MEGAN VERLEE: We — Colorado has a greater exposure to these federal cuts on average than most states in the country, according to numbers from the Pew Center on the States. That’s because we have a bunch of military bases, a lot of federal spending with a lot of research labs and a big federal center out here.

And then federal grants to our budget are a larger-than-average percentage. So, in Colorado, we’re looking at about $85 to $90 million dollars over the coming year, I believe they’re estimating. And then there are concerns about the multiplier effect, as a lot of those federal workers and defense workers become furloughed and aren’t spending as much money in the state economy.

So I know that there’s been ongoing concerns at the state level for what this is going to mean, both for revenue and for state programs down the line.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Megan, do you see this — or is it being seen as rolling out over time, the way Ed O’Keefe was talking about?

MEGAN VERLEE: It is, although there is a certain amount of urgency.

If our state government decides it wants to backfill any of the lost federal money to save education programs or to temporary aid to needy families, that has to go through a vote of our full state legislature. They are in session until mid-May, but I think there is going to be urgency on the part of lawmakers to make some decisions pretty quickly about how they are going to react to this.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Ed O’Keefe, so it’s interesting. It’s not felt evenly, right, and it’s not felt spread out across every program.

ED O’KEEFE:  No, it’s not at all.

They mentioned Maryland and Virginia, certainly here just on the outskirts of Washington, will be adversely affected.

JEFFREY BROWN: Federal workers.

ED O’KEEFE:  Absolutely.


And you will see a lot of different programs exempt. For example, the entire Department of Veterans Affairs is exempt from this. Social Security checks will continue to go out. The IRS won’t furlough its workers until tax returns have been processed in mid-April. So it is sort of spread out in ways that, originally, it was meant to be that these were so draconian that they would never happen. But now they’re going to hit the military, low-income women and children, disabled children and big education programs.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is that — does this also affect the politics, I mean, in terms of who speaks out from various states, because, as we are saying, some are hit, some are not hit?

ED O’KEEFE:  Yes, I think we will begin to see lawmakers from states who are adversely affected speaking out a lot more.

For example, there’s a bipartisan plan that was put forth today to avert all this from Mark Udall, the Democratic senator from Colorado, and then Susan Collins, the Republican of Maine, both of those states with large military operations, a lot of dependence on federal money and federal employment. And so I think next week, as we approach the continuing resolution, the need to renew the current federal spending plan, that you will see some try to step in and soften the blow.

JEFFREY BROWN: So — well, Karen Kasler, so you are at a state where you have got a Republican governor. What has the reaction been there? How much attention are they paying to it? How vocal are they about it?

KAREN KASLER: And our Republican governor, John Kasich, often touts himself as a budget expert. He was the chair of the House Budget Committee back in the ’90s. And so we hear an awful lot about federal budgets from our governor.

And, interestingly, he has been saying and his office has been saying that they don’t expect to see significant effects on state programs from the sequester. And when I talked to state agencies such as the Department of Education and Job and Family Services, which will be dealing with job training money that might be cut, the attitude is very, well, let’s wait and see. Let’s see what happens here. We have time to adjust.

And, indeed, the school funding money, the education money, wouldn’t even be affected until next school year that starts in August. So there is a feeling here in Ohio, a state run by Republicans, that there is plenty of time to absorb the sequester. While it might not be ideal, there’s time to recover.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Karen, do you think that also applies to the general population as well, a sense of sort of watching from outside a bit?

KAREN KASLER: I think it depends on where are you in the state. Certainly, we have got the two congressmen to deal with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base., Congressman Michael Turner, and then also Speaker John Boehner, who are obviously very involved in what’s happening here with the sequester.

But in other parts of the state, you hear a little less chatter. We do have some Tea Party groups that are urging the sequester to go forward. We have other groups that are very concerned about it. So once you get out of the main area here in the state capital, it depends on where you are what are you’re hearing.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Megan, you were saying — well, you have a Democrat as a governor. You were talking about how the state is trying to make some decisions here about how to deal with this. Tell us a little bit more. How big a deal is it? What are you hearing?

MEGAN VERLEE: I think it’s a pretty big deal certainly within the halls of the capitol.

We spoke with our governor yesterday, and he said that he is really weighing whether to backfill specifically in programs that would affect, as he put it, the last and least. One he cited was families, low-income families that might lose child care vouchers, and then hence might not be able to continue working. And does it make sense for the state to step in there?

But, like most states, Colorado has gone through years and years of budget cuts. And I think it’s going to be a very hard political sell both within the capitol and then out to the people saying, hey, we want to put this money into state programs. Now we’re actually using it to make up federal funding that we have lost.

I think, on the ground level, like in Ohio, it really depends on where you are. I know the universities are very concerned. There’s a lot of research grant money that goes into our big research institutions. And they’re looking at cuts, and trying to figure out where that is going to hit in the labs and what that will look like for their work going forward.

The average person — it’s funny. I saw a tweet this afternoon, somebody saying, oh, no, the effects of the sequester, and they had a picture of a screen shot of the wait time at DIA, our airport. It’s 10 minutes. So, I think there’s a little — some sensation that there might be some crying wolf, because people expected an immediate chop to funding, and life looks like it will go on tomorrow.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Ed, just in a word here, it sure didn’t look like much was happening behind — is there any — your reporting show any behind-the-screens action in Washington?

ED O’KEEFE:  The speaker is going home to Ohio. Nancy Pelosi is in San Francisco. Eric Cantor, the majority leader, will be in Selma for a civil rights march this weekend. Harry Reid is here in Washington.


ED O’KEEFE:  No work is expected.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, that tells us.

Ed O’Keefe, Megan Verlee, and Karen Kasler, thank you, all three.

ED O’KEEFE:  Great to be with you.

MEGAN VERLEE: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, online, you can find out how the cuts will affect two more communities, Hampton Roads, Virginia, and Saint Louis, Missouri. We have compiled reporting from our public media partners there.