Sequester’s pinch felt by some, not others, in Connecticut

Washington -– Three months after the federal government imposed across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration, their impact is felt by some but not others in Connecticut.

Predictions by the Obama administration, echoed by Democrats, that sequester would lead to chaos, with long lines at airports and veterans without health care, have not materialized. 

But the $85 billion budget cut is touching many Connecticut lives.

The hardest hit right now are the civilian workers at Naval Submarine Base New London and other federal workers in the state.

To deal with the sequester’s impact on the Pentagon’s budget, beginning Monday, 750 of the sub base’s 1,300 civilian workers were furloughed, or forced to take leave without pay, one day a week for the rest of the federal fiscal year.

“The loss of work-hours that they will endure will not only impact morale and productivity, but also base efficiency and support effectiveness,” said Capt. Carl A. Lahti, the new commanding officer at Naval Submarine Base New London.

Thomas (Tony) Sheridan, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said there will be a “huge ripple effect” on the communities of base workers as they tighten their belts and spend less.

“You cut 20 percent of someone’s pay today, that really affects their living standard,” Sheridan said.

He also said sequestration has had another impact and that’s the “damage to the psyche of the community” wrought by a Congress that demonstrated an inability to compromise to avoid harming the public.

Sequester cuts were imposed automatically because Congress did not agree to cut the federal budget as required by a 2011 deal that raised the debt ceiling.

Sequestration took effect March 31. But its full impact was blunted by an act of Congress that allowed agencies to move money around. Some agencies cut conferences, bonuses and travel to dull the cuts.

The Federal Aviation Administration was going to furlough FAA air controllers and cut controllers who work under contract for the agency at smaller airports.

But under intense pressure from lawmakers, including the members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation, the FAA stripped $253 million from a federal airport improvement grant program to continue to pay the air controllers.

The result: No air travel delays or long lines because of sequestration.

“We’ve had no effects that I’m aware of,” said John Wallace, communications director at Hartford’s Bradley International Airport.

Yet sequestration’s impact may be felt in many Connecticut households this winter. Funds for heating assistance were cut to $76 million compared with nearly $80 million Connecticut received for fiscal year 2012.

“Heating costs may be the last thing on people’s minds right now, but winter will come quickly, and these cuts will put people at risk of going cold,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District.

DeLauro also said a $1.5 billion cut from the National Institute of Health budget  has stripped several Yale researchers of grant money to continue biomedical studies.

Connecticut also lost about $3 million in Head Start early childhood education programs, affecting about 370 children.

In addition, Connecticut’s long term unemployed were hit by a 19.2 percent reduction in benefits as of the week of June 16 because of sequestration.

At the Pentagon, training for the Army has been reduced as has flying time for the Air Force and Navy ship deployment and repairs.

It may be too soon to determine the impact of the slowdown on Connecticut’s defense contractors, but few are expanding operations, and Sikorsky recently announced the layoff of 200 workers.

Connecticut’s Coast Guard has been spared from the federal government’s furloughs.

But not the state’s National Guard.

Beginning Monday, 54 percent of the Connecticut Army National Guard will be subject to a one-day-a-week furlough, as will 70 percent of the state’s Air National Guard.

That’s about 619 full-time guardsmen who will suffer a 20 percent pay cut.

Col. John Whitford, spokesman for the Connecticut National Guard, said the cutbacks have impact. He estimates there will be a decrease in productivity at the Army National Guard and that the Air National Guard will cut two daily maintenance shifts to one, with a reduction in flying time.

Money the federal government gives states for roads, bridges and other transportation projects was spared from the sequester, helping to ease its impact on the state government.

“The direct state budget impacts are not significant, but whether or not the overall economy will be affected by reductions in federal spending — particularly defense spending — is hard to measure,” said Gian-Carl Casa, undersecretary for legislative affairs at Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management.

Since the sequester has not had a more dramatic impact, calls to scrap it on Capitol Hill have died down. President Obama, a sequester foe, has not mentioned the word since April.

There may be a new clash soon, however.

The sequester is set to be in place for another nine years, unless Congress can come to an agreement on another way to cut the budget.

Conservative budget cutters say the reductions show the federal budget can survive a trim.

“I don’t think taking 2 percent off the top in a $14 trillion economy is going to be a big drag on growth,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., at a fiscal summit in Washington earlier this year.

But others warn it still packs a punch.

“The immediate reductions in spending had a negative impact on economic growth and jobs, (and) we have lived through only a few months of the sequester,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

He said, “it  is not clear what the benefits were,” and that Congress must act to avoid another nine years of “irrational cuts “ that prevent  investments needed to spur economic growth.

“The sequester is penny wise and pound foolish. It harms our national well-being and our reputation around the world,” Mann said.

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