February 17, 2013

Federal cuts have Mainers fuming

If automatic decreases kick in March 1, everyone from defense contractors to schools will feel the pain.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON - Paul O'Connor is angry -- if not furious -- with Congress lately, and he doesn't hesitate to say so.

"We get pushed to the edge of the cliff and then get pulled back. And in two months, we get pushed to the edge again and pulled back," said O'Connor, an electrician and labor leader at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery. "That is no way to run a country, but that is what they are doing."

Despite giving themselves a two-month extension back in January, Congress and the White House have yet to find a way to avoid $85 billion in automatic spending cuts that will kick in March 1. Now, with no deal in sight and Congress in recess until Feb. 25, the roughly 4,700 Maine and New Hampshire residents who work as civilians at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard are facing possible furloughs, project delays or worse.

"Congress put a gun to our heads because they don't have the fortitude to get the job done," said O'Connor, president of the Portsmouth Metal Trades Council, an umbrella group representing nine unions at the shipyard.

Portsmouth's employees are by no means the only Maine workers worried about the near future.

The across-the-board cuts will affect nearly every federal agency and all public and private institutions tied to federal funding.

Defense contractors in Maine report they have already scaled back their work forces.

The budget cuts could mean fewer air traffic controllers or security screening personnel at Maine airports, less funding for research at the state's universities and scientific laboratories, and less money to help low-income Mainers heat their homes.

Head Start and remedial education teachers largely paid with federal grants could be let go or face reduced hours.

"In my case, it is going to affect direct services to disadvantaged children," said Paul Stearns, superintendent of School Administrative District 4/Regional School Unit 80 in Guilford and president of the Maine School Superintendents Association. "It's very frustrating that they just can't get together on this."


The across-the-board budget cuts known as "the sequester" were supposed to be the blunt instrument that prompted Congress and the White House to come up with a more precise way of reducing spending and trimming the federal deficit.

But Republican and Democratic leaders remain deadlocked over whether the solution should include "new revenue" -- tax increases, in many cases -- or be achieved primarily through deep cuts in social programs. Congress merely sidestepped the spending cuts side of the so-called "fiscal cliff" in January by moving the deadline to March 1.

Both sides have introduced proposals in recent weeks, yet a deal remains elusive. Many in Congress appear increasingly resigned to the fact the cuts will take effect, at least initially.

"I am not interested in an 11th-hour negotiation," Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader from Kentucky, said Tuesday before adding that he believed the sequester would likely take effect.

Potential impacts on defense programs have received the most attention because half the cuts would come from the military's budgets.

In fiscal year 2011, more than 350 Maine companies landed $5 billion in defense- and homeland security-related contracts, although contracts typically total about $1.3 billion a year.

Those 2011 contracts supported an estimated 53,000 jobs across the state, according to a recent report by the Defense Technology Initiative, an economic development and advocacy group that represents New England's defense sector.

Those businesses include huge operations -- such as the 5,000 shipbuilders at Bath Iron Works -- as well as small contractors and subcontractors.


Among the latter is Howe and Howe Technologies, a Waterboro research and development firm that has won contracts to build manned and unmanned ground vehicles -- essentially mini-tanks -- for the military.

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