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The money question: Utah tries to make sense of sequestration

Published: Friday, Feb. 22 2013 9:05 p.m. MST

From left, Dora Gutierrez, Larry Cook, Sally Frantz and Rita Torres serve lunch at Liberty Senior Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 22, 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY  — Politics and money.

That's the real definition of "sequester" which is scheduled to kick in Friday and would result in $85 billion in reductions to discretionary federal spending this fiscal year.

It differs from The Fiscal Cliff because the cuts to future federal spending would play out month by month through September. But the rhetoric and political posturing is already 100 percent underway as the sequester is described as Draconian, catastrophic, an economic End of Days that will plunge the country into dire financial straits.

There are only a couple of certainties that emerge from the morass of information that surrounds sequestration: It will have an impact, no one knows for sure what that impact will be or how long it will last, and a whole lot of people and agencies are trying to prepare for the unknown.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who said Utah may see a $550 million hit in federal monies, spent Friday in Washington meeting with other members of the National Governors Association on the threats of sequestration and what it will mean to the individual state budgets.

Critics of the spending reductions — special interest groups and the federal agencies themselves are jockeying to paint a grim scenario of impacts that will visit the lives of every American family before the budget blood-letting is over — should it happen.

The Office of the Press Secretary at the White House warned of 70,000 children being "kicked" off the rolls of Head Start programs across the country, seniors going without four million Meals on Wheels deliveries and a food safety program idled to such an extent that the public would be at risk to food-borne illness.

Other disastrous effects are detailed to happen if Congress and President Barack Obama can't get over their budget disagreements and act to avert the cuts — which represent just shy of 2.4 percent of the overall spending for 2013, according to numbers released by the Congressional Budget Office.

The spending reductions would leave mostly intact big programs like Social Security and Medicaid and would not touch welfare or food stamp programs. Medicare is facing a 2 percent reduction, or $9.9 billion — mostly through provider payments — and the other $28.7 billion in cuts are  across the board at all manner of agencies.

Sequestration and Utah

In Utah, most agree the biggest threat would play out at Hill Air Force Base. For the more than 11,000 civilian employees potentially impacted there, it means furloughs of 22 days — one day per week — as the defense budget shoulders its $42.7 billion share of the cut, or 7.9 percent of its budget.

The civilian workforce has already been told what to expect if the spending cuts come through.

"We are talking about a 20 percent cut in pay with families who are already struggling who are going to be struggling more," said Troy Tingey, a 29-year employee at the base.

Tingey is president of Local 1592 of the American Federation of Government Employees, a civilian union representing more than 3,000 workers at Hill.

"They're worried about mortgage payments being completed, auto insurance being made, taking the family out to the movie or to dinner."

One worker stands to lose $384 a paycheck, while others are at risk to drop $450 a pay period.

"People are freaked out," the worker said. "And people in the community don't realize the ripple effect of no longer going to businesses that are near the base."

Tingey said if the furloughs happen, it would be preferable to have them unfold in one big block in September so the public would realize the full effect of a civilian shut-down.

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