The money question: Utah tries to make sense of sequestration
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.
"It would certainly be tough for a lot of people. We'd encourage those to ring those phones off the hook and make the impact be heard where it ought to be, in DC."
Such a delay, he added, would give workers time to get their financial plans in order and perhaps qualify for unemployment because of the protracted absence from work.
Tingey, like other Hill workers, complained that the ax is falling squarely on the shoulders of the "little guy" when the budget scissors could be more appropriately aimed elsewhere. The base, one employee said, could eliminate perks like receiving paid time off for fitness or social events that build workers' morale and get more bang for its buck by choosing vendors that don't over inflate prices for routine office equipment.
"Rather than fight with the Secretary of Defense or with contractors, they come after the civilian pay," Tingey said. "It just seems to be overwhelming and continuous."
The result, he said, is that milestone life events are being put on hold, with everyone living under the glare of an uncertain future.
For Utah's other military groups and installations, the same uncertainty and angst continues to grow as the countdown inches closer to the sequester.
Lt. Col. Hank McIntyre of the Utah National Guard said the organization is bracing for a $33 million cut and furloughs as well.
Those cuts could ultimately affect the ability of the guard to carry out its mission in the state.
With the necessary cutbacks in training would come a diminished "readiness" when the guard is called up to assist in local disasters, McIntyre said.
"It doesn't just affect the members of the guard and the guards' families, it affects the state's ability to respond to an emergency if these cuts go through," McIntyre said. "It's not a pretty picture."
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood warned Friday that the $600 million in cuts that would happen to the Federal Aviation Administration could cripple the movement of freight and people in this country.
His warnings, delivered during a press conference at the White House, were accompanied by a "hit list" posted on the agency's website detailing which airports across the country could have air traffic control towers shut down. The result was a media frenzy reporting that entire airports would be shuttered.
Two on that list are in Utah — Provo's airport and the Ogden-Hinckley Airport — both of which offer commercial flights via Allegiant Air.
In Ogden, airport manager Royal Eccles isn't buying into the scare and emphasized that an air traffic control tower closure is not an airport closure at all.
Such a closure would switch the operational mode of the airport to an uncontrolled air space — just like at the St. George, Logan and Brigham City airports.
"You have to state where you are and what your intentions are."
Eccles said that the idea of shutting down certain air traffic control towers at regional airports — part of the national transportation system — doesn't make sense.
"It's like a city trying to save money by pulling out the stop signs and turning off the traffic signals. If you really want to shut down America, remember what happened after 9-11 when they took all the airplanes out of the sky. It's all about fear."
The pending budget cutbacks also could spell trouble for Utah's five national parks, with freezes on hiring, curtailing hours at visitor centers and even compromising visitor safety because fewer park rangers would be available for patrol.
Meals on Wheels
Another potential victim of cuts, according to the list put out by the White House, is Meals on Wheels, which could see four million less deliveries to home-bound seniors across the country.
Utah receives $8.2 million in federal dollars that in part provides more than 2 million meals either through home delivery or at senior centers to residents age 60 or older.
Nels Holmgren, director of the state Division of Aging Services, said that pot of money also goes to provide caregiver support and other nutrition services. Together, state and federal dollars make up about half the funding for meals that are delivered or served at the centers under the purview of 12 local aging agencies.
"Whatever version of the sequester kicks in will definitely have an impact on the state," Holmgren said. "At this point, the question is what the size of the impact will be."
Holmgren said the politicization of the cuts has local money managers sifting through the information with caution and wariness.
"Some of it has to be taken with a grain of salt."
Ken Venables, spokesman for Salt Lake County Aging Services, said Utah seniors should refrain from worrying about reductions in services like Meals on Wheels.
"We will make sure every single necessary precaution is taken to maintain these critical services."
In Holladay, Denise Keate is hoping her meals keep coming.
"I just think it's the most wonderful program that has ever been," said Keate, who will turn 82 in April.
Hospitalized for a time and suffering from extreme rheumatoid arthritis, Keate said the meals have been a godsend, helping her to remain in her home.
"That is the horror all of us live with," she said, speaking to the fear of having to go into a nursing home. "People staying in their home, able to survive and take care of themselves, sometimes this is the only way to do it."
If cuts have to come, she urged those in charge of the money to look elsewhere.
"Let's not pick on the old. We went through the Depression and World War II. Give us a break."