By Joe Rutherford and NEMS Daily Journal staff
Northeast Mississippi’s congressional delegation – U.S. senators Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker and 1st District Rep. Alan Nunnelee, all Republicans – agree that sequestration is not the best way to achieve cuts in federal spending, but their views are not unanimous on the specifics to achieve progress.
The cuts are projected to trim $85 billion from federal spending – including congressional office budgets – or the remainder of fiscal year 2013. Sequestration begins Friday, and will have a direct impact on many programs and people in Mississippi.
The Mississippi delegation’s senior member, Sen. Thad Cochran, criticized what he termed the arbitrary nature of the across-the-board cuts under a sequester as “not the way to go about it.”
Cochran has said the process will force indiscriminate cuts on the federal government’s major Mississippi installations, as well as the important resources provided for many education and health programs in the state.
“The sequester is a symptom of a federal budget process that is not functioning well. It is my hope that we can soon find responsible ways to make spending reductions,” Cochran said Wednesday in a statement released by his Washington office.
“The budget cuts set to go into effect on March 1 would disproportionately affect our nation’s defense,,”’ Wicker noted. “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. We need to address the real drivers of Washington’s spending problem.”
Nunnelee said he “would like to see negotiations over a smarter way to cut spending, but so far the Democrats are insisting on yet another tax increase as the price of any deal. I will not give up spending cuts for higher taxes.”
Without congressional action, federal agencies will begin Friday implementing $85 billion across the board cuts to every agency and program in FY2013, including approximately $46 billion in defense cuts. The reductions are mandated with the Budget Control Act as the first part of $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years.
Here is a sampling of likely impacts in Mississippi:
The nearly 10,000 civilian Department of Defense employees in the state who would be furloughed would reduce gross pay by about $49.9 million, according to the White House.
U.S. Army base operation funding would be cut by about $2.8 million, Air Force operations would be cut by about $4 million and the Navy’s procurement of ships could be deferred. Also, a planned demolition project at Naval Air Station Meridian could be canceled.
With some military contracts in hand, Navistar Defense’s assembly operation in West Point will keep its more than 100 workers busy for at least a few more months. A company spokeswoman noted the latest contract – a $23 million deal which involves retrofitting 205 armored cabs onto Navistar Medium Tactical Vehicles – will provide work through July.
The sequestration won’t affect operations “in the short term,” said Lauren McFarland. “But literally, everybody is in a wait-and-see mode.”
It is among scores of defense industry tied companies bracing for the first round of defense spending sequestration cuts totaling $43 billion.
– Dennis Seid
Most of the K-12 federal money in Mississippi comes from Title 1, a program that provides funds to high-poverty schools, and from special education dollars. Because of Mississippi’s high percentage of poverty, the state would be hurt more than others by the loss of that money.
Mississippi could lose $5.48 million in federal funding for primary and secondary education, according to an estimate provided by the White House. Districts would not be affected until the 2013-14 school year.
Tupelo uses a significant amount of its $10.1 million of federal money for the Early Childhood Education Center for 4-year-old students. Lee County Schools receive about $6 million. If that amount is reduced, Federal Programs Director Casey Dye said, the district would cut programs, technology and training to save teacher jobs.
Money also would be cut to the Head Start and Early Head Start programs that provide early education to high-poverty families. The White House estimates services would be eliminated for about 1,600 children in the state.
In higher education, Pell grants for financial aid would be exempt this year. Cuts would come to work-study jobs and research funding.
– Chris Kieffer
FEDERAL COURTS, LAW ENFORCEMENT
North Mississippi’s federal court district’s chief judge predicts operations will squeak by until Oct. 1, but he’s concerned after that, if more budget cuts come their way.
“We have looked at it and think we can make it to the end of the fiscal year Oct. 1 without having to furlough staff or close the courts,” said Judge Michael P. Mills on Wednesday.
He notes the federal court system was cut 12.6 percent last year and the Northern District is coping with 14 open staff slots. But new cuts could hit court personnel by 14 percent and 20 percent in other ways.
He said congressional approval of a Continuing Resolution to delay deep budget cuts “is critical” so that agencies have more time to figure out what to do.
Funding cuts to the federal courts likely will mean longer waits to get cases to trial, he noted.
While the Mississippi FBI office declined specifics, Director Robert Mueller III recently said the net effect will be that every FBI employee will be furloughed for 14 work days, nearly three full weeks. That includes agents and intelligence analysts.
Every federal Marshal’s office employee will be furloughed for up to 13 days and a hiring freeze will be implemented.
The U.S. Attorney’s office will have staff reductions and is projected to handle 2,600 fewer cases. Fewer prosecutions would mean reduced civil and criminal fines, restitution and other debt.
The Federal Aviation Administration faces $600 million in cuts, and the agency would have to reduce operating costs and services. The “vast majority” of FAA’s 47,000 employees would be furloughed for one day per pay period. That would affect air traffic controllers and slow air traffic in major cities.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said 100 airport traffic control towers across the country could be closed. In Mississippi, control towers at seven airports could be closed, including Tupelo Regional Airport and Columbus’ Golden Triangle Regional Airport
General aviation flights and commercial flights would continue, however, even without the towers operating.
Josh Abramson, Tupelo Regional’s executive director, said Silver Airways also would continue to fly its 18 weekly round-trip flights to Atlanta even without a control tower.
How operations at the nearby Army Aviation Support Facility could be affected is unknown. If operations are grounded there, that would impact fuel sales at the airport. Maj. Derek Holland, commander of the facility, declined to speculate on the potential impact.
LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT
Each year the Lee County Sheriff’s Office uses Justice Assistance Grants to purchase bullet proof vests to replace expired vests. Those vests, along with other weapons and equipment Mississippi law enforcement officers use, will be harder to purchase.
About $138,000 will be cut from the Justice Assistance Grants for Mississippi. In 2012, the state relied on $2,766,917 in Justice Assistance Grants to help fund law enforcement agencies’ equipment purchases.
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said the vests are a recurring expense they rely on the grants for and would have trouble funding out of their budget. He said they also use the grants for computer equipment and vehicles used to expand the department’s capabilities.
Each year the sheriff’s office teams up with the Tupelo Police Department to get a Justice Assistance Grant that the departments split to help with equipment like rifles, holsters and flashlights.
Tupelo Police Chief Tony Carleton said his department also uses the grant money to purchase laptops.
A number of Mississippi public health programs could feel the pinch from the sequester. According to White House reports, Mississippi would lose $80,000 in Vaccines for Children funding, which would impact immunizations for about 1,170 children. The state would lose $283,000 to upgrade its ability to respond to public health threats ranging from infectious disease to bioterrorism attacks. Funding for HIV testing could drop by $141,000, which would mean roughly 3,500 fewer tests.
The biggest public health hit for Mississippi would potentially come from the loss of $710,000 in grants to help prevent and treat substance abuse, according to the White House numbers.
The Mississippi Department of Health officials declined to speculate on any impacts of the sequester, saying they wanted to wait and see what actually happens Friday before making any comments.
–Michaela Gibson Morris