TOPICS > Politics

Communities Prepare for Sequester Cuts to Staffing and Social Programs

May 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
With no compromise in sight, communities across the country are bracing for sequester to kick in during the coming weeks. Ray Suarez looks at effects for workers and government programs at the state-level. Gene Grant of New Mexico PBS, Gretchen Frazee of WTIU and Flo Jonic of Rhode Island Public Radio share their perspectives.
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RAY SUAREZ: Now an update on the impact of federal spending cuts known as the sequester.

The government must reduce spending in most programs across the board by $85 billion dollars this year — the latest fallout, federal officials announced today they’re postponing auctions for new oil and gas leases in California. Those bids were planned for an area that features one of the largest deposits of shale oil in the country.

Staffing and budget problems were cited as one of the several reasons for the decision, but when it comes to tracking the effect of the sequester, it’s a tricky thing. While some cuts have already hit, others are still to come and some may be avoided.

One of the most immediate and visible changes, furloughs for air traffic controllers that led to flight delays, ended within a week of when the cuts took effect. That’s because Congress and the president signed a bill quickly providing new relief for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Some other furloughs, such as at the State Department, have been avoided through budgetary maneuvers. But the president maintains incremental fixes are the wrong approach to the sequester

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What’s clear is that the only way we’re going to lift it is if we do a bigger deal that meets the test of lowering our deficit and growing our economy at the same time. And that is going to require some compromises on the part of both Democrats and Republicans.

RAY SUAREZ: With no compromise in sight, communities across the country are bracing for sequester to kick in during the coming weeks. Workers at this Naval facility in the town of Crane in southern Indiana, for example, are protesting pending furloughs of civilian employees.

The Department of Defense is facing the prospect of cutting more than $40 billion dollars. Social programs in other states are already taking a hit. In Monmouth County, N.J., the local Meals on Wheels program has halted hiring and taking on new delivery routes to needy seniors. Federal funding currently covers more than 60 percent of the program’s costs. Now officials are waiting to see how much money is cut in the weeks ahead.

In Washington, some cutbacks are already visible. The White House began canceling tours to the public in March. Would-be visitors are now encouraged to take a virtual tour online. Last week, the Smithsonian announced three exhibit areas would be closed through September, citing a reduction in a security contract.

For more, we turn to colleagues from across the country. Gene Grant is with New Mexico PBS. Gretchen Frazee is with WTIU at Indiana Public Media, and Flo Jonic is a reporter at Rhode Island Public Radio.

Guests, let’s go from east to west and check on how the effects of the sequester are being seen where you live and work.

So, we will start in Rhode Island with you, Flo.

FLO JONIC, Rhode Island Public Radio: The effects of the sequestration cuts were first felt in Rhode Island by 8,000 long-term unemployed people.

At two weeks ago, they sustained a $40 dollar-a-week benefit cut. That may not sound like a lot, but it is when you consider we live in a fairly expensive part of the country. And the average weekly benefit in Rhode Island is only $369 dollars.

Most of our cuts are still ahead. Head Start will lose 200 of its 2,800 slots next fall. They’re going to do it by serving the neediest children. That means a lot of poor children will be going to kindergarten without benefits of this program; 4,000 Rhode Islanders next winter will lose low-income heating assistance. That’s a very big deal when you consider about half of the state heats with heating oil, which is costing upwards of four dollars a gallon.

I talked to a man who was trying to live on a $1,700 dollar-a-month Social Security check, and he told me that that help was the difference between eating and keeping warm. Other cuts that are in the offing, but have not yet been imposed, 1,700 Rhode Islanders will lose the federal nutrition program known as WIC. Rhode Island will lose about two million dollars in special education funds. They’re still trying to figure out how that’s going to be absorbed.

And we stand to lose $15 million dollars in programs for housing the very poorest among us. That includes the closure probably of one shelter next winter, and this winter we had shelters with standing room only.

RAY SUAREZ: We will move next to Indiana.

Gretchen, how does it look there?

GRETCHEN FRAZEE, WTIU: It’s actually very similar to what we just heard about in Rhode Island.

Head Start is probably the program that has and seen the biggest impact so far. It’s estimated that about 1,000 of the children that currently go to Head Start programs will be cut. That’s out of about 15,000 throughout the state. And a lot of those programs are starting to cut back. Already some of their summer programs, for example, have been cut back.

Here, where I am in Bloomington, they are actually only taking about a third of the students that they originally had estimated would be able to come into the summer program. We’re also seeing cuts to our long-term unemployment benefits.

Last month, they were cut about 10 percent, which is — doesn’t seem like a lot, but, again, as we heard in Rhode Island, when you are on that fixed income, it can really cut into your budget. One of the other things we’re still waiting on is our defense industry. That’s quite a big industry here in Indiana.

And what we’re seeing is that it was estimated that about 1,000 National Guard technicians would be put on furlough for 22 days. We had heard just last week that that has actually been cut back to 14 days is all. So that’s some good news.

However, there are a lot of people still waiting for news. As you saw in the television story, there are some employees in Crane, Ind. About 4,000 of those civilian contractors at the Naval base down there are set to be put on furlough, but really they have not heard exactly when that will be, how long that will be. So we’re really still in a wait-and-see mode here in Indiana.

RAY SUAREZ: And we head next to New Mexico with Gene Grant.

Gene?

GENE GRANT, New Mexico PBS: Very similar to what we heard from Indiana, that last bit of it about certainly the Department of Defense and Department of Energy cuts here.

Here, Ray, in New Mexico, we have so big — so much federal presence, either through military or through our national laboratories. Two of them, Sandia National Labs here in Albuquerque and Los Alamos National Labs up about two hours north — north of Albuquerque in Los Alamos.

And initially it looked like we were facing about $43 million in budget cuts. That was between Air Force and Army, Army being the bulk of that. But there are a lot of things that are starting to turn over slowly as possibilities to sequester that are giving people some trouble, including some of our Senate and congressional delegation, who are fighting right now to, for example, move some money around through a reprogramming scheme with DOE to continue with a deal they had made with the state to clean up some stuff, some transuranic acid and other waste, nuclear waste up at Los Alamos.

Well, we’re obligated to have that cleaned up. There’s an agreement between the state and DOE. They’re asking for $20 million more to ensure that happens. Sen. Tom Udall has said, in fact, if that doesn’t happen, he would predict furloughs as early as next week.

And I want to go back to something our guests from Indiana just mentioned as well, that Sec. Hagel is expected to announce next week, as we hear it out here, whether — what the deal is going to be on furloughs. We have also heard about 22 weeks down — 22 days down to 14. We’re not quite sure where it’s all going to level out. And, see, the mystery is the big problem at this point for New Mexico.

RAY SUAREZ: In your states, is there growing awareness that this is happening?

Flo, if you’re not in Head Start, if you’re not on unemployment insurance, is it getting a lot of play? Is it something that people are talking about that these federal cuts are here and the effects are starting to be seen?

FLO JONIC: It’s not getting a lot of coverage or awareness. I haven’t heard anybody talking about it.

Our legislature has been absorbed with same-sex marriage recently. I’m not seeing any movement on Smithfield — that’s where our statehouse is located — to alleviate any of these cuts. There’s a lot of lobbying going on, particularly to restore the Meals on Wheels cuts that are anticipated, which could affect — 200 seniors could be cut off the Meals on Wheels program here.

But I’m not seeing any movement to restore these cuts. And this is at a time when Rhode Island is in a better position financially than it has been in a long time. For the first time in several years, we don’t have a huge deficit to face this year.

RAY SUAREZ: Gene, you opened by mentioning that New Mexico is among the states most dependent on transfers from the federal government. Is there high awareness there of the possible effects down the road, unreeling as they may be, of the sequester on a state like New Mexico?

GENE GRANT: Sure.

On the street, yes, seemingly in our legislature and in official New Mexico, no. We just finished our session just about 30, 45 days ago. It hardly came up. It was an amazing circumstance to watch happen. On the street, however, it is a much different deal.

Keep in mind, Kirtland Air Force Base, which Sandia National Labs is on their property here in Albuquerque, they have come up with a metric that shows one out of every 14 jobs in the entire state of New Mexico are somehow associated with Kirtland Air Force Base. We’re talking about a payroll annually of about $1.2 billion out of here. And their predictions — not the predictions — their radius of influence for that money is about a 50-mile radius around that base.

So anybody that’s a civilian contractor — we have already had some contractors let go at Kirtland, where we have had maintenance and janitorial services let go. And one of the interesting things I’m going to be watching here is, how is this going to affect minority-owned business contracting? That’s been a very big push here in New Mexico for a lot of years for all of our federal outlets. And some great progress has been made.

But all that could potentially roll back if in fact those most vulnerable contractors are the first to be let go. So folks are kind of waiting and seeing which way this is going to play out in a lot of different ways. But I’ll tell you, if you’re in someone’s kitchen or dining room, they absolutely know about sequestration.

To hear it officially in New Mexico from either the governor’s office, the legislature, the mayor’s office here in Albuquerque, very, very little at this point.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Gretchen, there was this titanic political battle before sequestration arrived. Once it came, did people really believe that it was that big a deal? Or are these effects in Indiana on the National Guard, on a base in Crane, on people who have kids in Head Start so limited that it’s not widely felt yet?

GRETCHEN FRAZEE: I think the issue here really isn’t that it’s so limited, as much as who it affects.

I talked to one economist who basically said the cuts we’re seeing are really to, to be honest, low-income services. And that’s just not what you hear about. So a lot of people in the middle and upper classes aren’t even fazed that much by sequestration, barring, of course, the contract — the defense contractors and other people in the defense industry.

So, really, we haven’t heard much about it. As our other colleagues have mentioned, we also wrapped up our legislative session, and there really wasn’t — it wasn’t discussed hardly at all. And we have heard a few things here and there from our U.S. senators, for example, especially when you were seeing those FAA furloughs that were backing up some of the airports.

But other than a few things here and there, we really have not heard much, again, going back to some people in the defense industry. They have been vocal about it, but, again, those are a limited number of people here in the state that are being affected.

RAY SUAREZ: Gretchen Frazee in Indiana, Gene Grant in New Mexico, Flo Jonic in Rhode Island, thanks to all of you.

Find out how the sequester affected a community near you. That’s on our home page.