By Bartholomew Sullivan
WASHINGTON — The Mid-South stands to lose millions in federal payroll dollars and see a decline in overall consumer spending if the sequester of federal funds, scheduled to take effect Friday, lingers late into the fiscal year, politicians and experts said Thursday.
White House estimates of the impact on Tennessee and Mississippi show teachers and teachers’ aides could be cut by $20.2 million between now and Sept. 30, and put an estimated 280 jobs in both states at risk. Head Start services for 2,800 children could be lost.
It estimates that 7,000 civilian Department of Defense employees in Tennessee and 9,000 in Mississippi could be subject to furloughs, reducing gross pay in both states $86.8 million over a six-month period.
Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the White House were characteristically apportioning blame Thursday as the deadline for what President Barack Obama called a “tumble-down” approached.
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican, took reporters’ questions on the unfolding dilemma but laid the blame squarely on “a failure of presidential leadership.” He said he and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., have been calling for a deficit reduction measure that would cap increases in entitlement spending.
For his part, Corker went to the Senate floor Thursday to call the sequester “ham-handed” and said the only thing worse would be to “kick the can down the road” again. But he laid the blame for the looming cuts on a “lack of courage” in the Senate that, he said, has not come to terms with the costs of future entitlement programs.
The Budget Control Act legislation authorizing the sequester in August 2011 was supported by Senators Alexander, Corker; Thad Cochran and Roger F. Wicker, both R-Miss.; Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and John Boozmann, R-Ark. In the House, Alan Nunnelee, R-Miss., and Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., voted for it and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., voted against it.
Cohen said the sequester will cause delays and inconvenience in passenger flights from Memphis International Airport, and that the Transportation Security Administration and Federal Aviation Administration will likely see furloughs at one of the region’s major economic engines. He said the Millington Regional Jetport “could be closed down entirely.” He also said teachers, seniors’ meals and health department immunizations could be affected.
Cohen’s office circulated a pamphlet from the National Association of County and City Health Officials saying 4,157 pregnant and breastfeeding women in Shelby County could be dropped from the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, fewer people would be tested for sexually transmitted diseases, and more people would resort to emergency rooms with cutbacks to Community Health Centers.
Kenneth H. Cronk, a spokesman for the Navy Region-Midwest in Great Lakes, Ill., said 80 percent of the 1,790-civilian workforce at the Naval Support Activity Mid-South in Millington could lose one paid day a week from April 25 until the start of the new fiscal year in October.
Tennessee had roughly 28,498 civilian federal employees and Mississippi had roughly 18,919 in March 2012, the latest figures available, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Arkansas had 14,206.
They fill out a wide complement of job categories, many of which will be subject to furloughs under the sequester formulation agreed to in 2011.
Tennessee, for example, had 9,446 employees working for the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1,328 working for the Department of Homeland Security and 1,070 working for the Social Security Administration. In the military field, Tennessee had 877 Department of Defense employees in addition to 1,234 civilian Naval and 3,720 civilian Army personnel.
“With the sequester deadline just hours away, the President is still insisting on raising taxes that only stalls a struggling economy,” Fincher said in a prepared statement Thursday evening. “Instead of talking about unnecessary tax hikes, sequestration can be avoided through responsible cuts to wasteful spending. In all, the sequestration equates to three cents of every dollar of Washington spending. Programs like the President’s $2.2 billion free cellphone program and NASA’s near $1 million in annual spending on a so-called ‘Mars menu’ to test space food should be on the chopping block. Clearly, our President needs to get his priorities straight.”
Mississippi had 446 NASA workers, 610 working for Social Security, 908 working in Homeland Security and 8,798 working as Army, Navy or Air Force or Department of Defense civilians this time last year, records show. Another 4,008 worked for Veterans Affairs.
Some saw the sequester as a first step toward needed cuts, however random. Taxpayers for Common Sense the Project on Government Oversight, Take Back Washington and the Republican Liberty Caucus joined forces in an open letter this week saying that sequestration “may not be the best way to shape Pentagon spending,” but provided circumstances for discussing significant cuts to “bloated” military spending.
Wicker, who serves on the Armed Services Committee, said he opposed the across-the-board nature of the cuts.
“The budget cuts set to go into effect on March 1 would disproportionately affect our nation’s defense,” Wicker said.
“In Mississippi, nearly 10,000 civilian employees from the Defense Department could be furloughed as early as March. Across-the-board defense cuts are a reckless way to bring about deficit reduction,” said Wicker. “We need to address the real drivers of Washington’s spending problem. Americans deserve a responsible solution that does not jeopardize our national security.”
Nunnelee appeared resigned to the sequester kicking in. He said Americans absorbed the reinstatement of a 2 percent payroll tax this year and the federal government should be able to adjust to the cuts.
“Our country must find a way to cut spending,” he said.