Saturday, March 8, 2014
WASHINGTON – The Senate failed Thursday to prevent across-the-board federal budget cuts that almost no one is happy with, but it is unclear when the effects might be felt in Maine and how severe they might be.
Defense-industry and other federal workers, education funding, social services, air traffic control and border crossings could all be affected.
The severity and timing of the impacts depends largely on whether and when Congress and the White House can agree on an alternative deficit-reduction plan to replace the "sequester" cuts -- a total of $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
"We're hoping that a solution can be reached," said Maj. Michael Steinbuchel, spokesman for the Maine National Guard. Nearly 600 civilian Guard employees could be furloughed for 22 days each.
The prospects for avoiding the spending reductions evaporated Thursday afternoon when the Senate voted largely along party lines to reject two proposed alternatives, one sponsored by each party. President Obama was to meet Friday with the four top congressional Republicans and Democrats, but there seemed little hope for an immediate compromise.
It was clear that Mainers would not wake Friday to find shuttered government offices or pink slips at their workplaces. But the effects will be felt eventually if nothing is done.
Maine's public school districts would lose about $7.3 million, according to the Maine Department of Education. Roughly $2.8 million would come from programs for students with disabilities, while another $2.7 million would be cut from programs that support remedial math and reading. According to White House estimates, those cuts could cost 70 teachers and staff their jobs.
"It won't kick in until July 1, so that's good news," said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education. He said the delay gives schools some time to prepare as they work on next year's budget. "But obviously, it is going to have an effect on the districts."
Federal homeland security officials have warned that the cuts would force reductions in airport screening personnel and air traffic controller shifts, meaning longer waits in airports. Bangor International Airport could lose its overnight air traffic control shifts, leaving controllers in Boston to monitor overnight flights into and out of the Bangor region. But officials have said they are unsure how that would affect airport operations.
Homeland security officials have also warned that the cuts would reduce staffing at international border crossings around the country and result in fewer Coast Guard patrols. But officials contacted Thursday did not provide additional specifics on regional impacts, such as on the small border-crossing stations on logging roads deep in the Maine woods that are vital to the state's forestry industry.
Approximately 7,000 civilian employees of the U.S. Defense Department could face as many as 22 furlough days each, translating into a 20 percent pay cut through the end of September. But those furloughs wouldn't begin until mid- to late April.
Paul O'Connor, president of the labor council representing most of the 4,700 civilian employees at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, said the uncertainty is taking a toll on work-force morale. Some workers are looking for part-time jobs and many are cutting back on spending, which would in turn affect local businesses that depend on the shipyard workers' patronage.
"We're like everybody else. We don't have 20 percent left over in our paychecks every month," said O'Connor, an electrician and president of the Portsmouth Metal Trades Council, the umbrella organization for the shipyard's numerous labor unions.
O'Connor isn't banking on a resolution any time soon.
"The hope is that before we get too deep into it Congress will realize the disastrous impact of this self-manufactured crisis and undo it, but I have been thinking about that," O'Connor said. "What has changed in Congress to make us think they will now be able to work together to get beyond sequestration?"
The roughly 570 civilian employees at the Maine National Guard facing furloughs maintain the Guard's vehicles and aircraft and operate Guard facilities throughout the state, Steinbuchel said. Furloughs there would likely begin around April 25.
"That has a definite impact on the readiness of the Maine Army and Air National Guard, and that would compromise our ability to respond to a crisis," Steinbuchel said. But in the meantime, Steinbuchel said state Guard leaders are awaiting more guidance from national officials.
Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: