Wednesday, June 19, 2013
WASHINGTON -- The Senate failed Thursday to prevent across-the-board federal budget cuts that almost everyone said should be avoided, but it is unclear what effect they will have in Maine.
The federal workforce, education funding, social services, air traffic control, border crossings and defense workers all could be affected, but it's uncertain how soon the cuts could be felt.
That depends largely on how long the "sequester" cuts -- a total of $1.2 trillion over 10 years -- are allowed to linger before Congress and the White House agree to replace them with something else, if they can agree on anything at all.
"We're hoping that a solution can be reached," said Maj. Michael Steinbuchel, spokesman for the Maine National Guard, which faces nearly 600 furloughs.
The prospects of a solution to head off the cuts evaporated Thursday afternoon when the Senate voted largely along party lines to reject two options sponsored by the two parties.
President Barack Obama plans to meet today with the four top Republicans and Democrats in Congress, but there seemed little hope Thursday of an immediate compromise.
It was clear that Mainers would not awaken Friday to find shuttered government offices or pink slips at their workplaces, but people and programs will be affected eventually.
Maine's public school districts expect to 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 mathematics and reading programs. According to White House estimates, those cuts could cost 70 teachers and staff members 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 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 -- if enacted as now planned -- would result in fewer airport screening personnel and air traffic controller shifts, meaning longer waits in the security lines and on the tarmac. Bangor International Airport could lose its overnight air traffic control shifts, forcing controllers in Boston to monitor flights into and out of the Bangor region. Airport officials have said they are unsure exactly what such a change would mean to operations.
Department of Homeland Security officials have warned that the cuts would reduce staffing at international border crossings around the country and result in fewer Coast Guard patrols. However, Homeland Security officials contacted Thursday did not provide additional specifics on regional effects, such as on the small border stations located deep in the Maine woods that are critical to the state's forestry industry.
About 7,000 civilian employees of the U.S. Defense Department could face as many as 22 furlough days, translating into a 20 percent pay cut through the end of September; but those furloughs won't begin until mid- to late April -- if they begin at all.
Paul O'Connor, who represents most of the 4,700 civilian employees at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, said the uncertainty is taking a toll on the workforce's morale. Some workers are looking for part-time work, while many are cutting back how much they spend on daily living, which would in turn affect local shops that depend on the shipyard's massive workforce.
"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 the Portsmouth Metal Trades Council, the umbrella organization for the shipyard's numerous labor unions.
O'Connor isn't banking on a resolution anytime 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 are the people who maintain the guard's vehicles and aircraft and operate the facilities throughout the state, Steinbuchel said. Furloughs there probably would 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. In the meantime, Steinbuchel said, state Guard leaders are awaiting more guidance from national officials.
Kevin Miller -- 317-6256