By Alana Melanson, firstname.lastname@example.org
The impact of sequestration, or across-the-board federal cuts set to take effect Friday, will be felt throughout the region and the country for years to come, according to local, regional and federal officials.
Without a deal between Congress and the White House, the sequester would trigger $85 billion in spending reductions through 8 percent cuts to defense, research hospitals and social services programs. Social Security, Medicaid and food stamps are exempt, while Medicare will be cut by 2 percent.
U.S. and local officials say these cuts will weaken the recovering economy and result in lost jobs and local aid.
“In a time when we think our number-one priority has to be job creation and strengthening the economy, sequestration is the antithesis of that,” said U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell. “It’s going to weaken our economy. Hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost and endangered.”
She said the across-the-board cuts that will occur with sequestration were never intended to take effect–they were meant to force Republicans and Democrats to come together and reach a balanced resolution.
Tsongas believes sequestration is already compromising national security, because the Navy has delayed the deployment of an aircraft carrier to go to the Persian Gulf — something she says is important to confront what is happening in the Middle East.
Sequestration will also result in the furloughing of every meat and poultry inspector for two weeks, she said, which could lead to total stoppage of production at meat processing plants. These products will take longer to be delivered to stores, which could see shortages and significant price increases, Tsongas said.
Air traffic controllers and airport security will also see furloughs, she said, resulting in fewer flights in some areas and flights delayed across the country.
“It will have a ripple effect across the economy,” Tsongas said.
U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, said the cuts will slow economic recovery, and that educational programs such as Head Start, transportation, infrastructure, senior housing, law enforcement and environmental programs such as brownfields cleanup will suffer.
He said student financial aid would also be hit — something that would be felt locally at Fitchburg State University, Mount Wachusett Community College.
“Programs that we benefit from very directly will be slashed, and in a very arbitrary way,” McGovern said. “We should be trying to find a way to avoid that rather than taking a break this (past) week. We ought to have been in session to come up with an alternative.”
Tsongas agreed, adding that the calendar is set by the Republicans as the majority party in the House.
For John Keeney, area project coordinator for the New England Farm Workers’ Council, the local agency that administers federal fuel assistance funds, sequestration could mean both layoffs for his employees and a shortage in benefits for those who need it most.
“We’re running a tight ship as it is,” Keeney said. “We have taken up to 12,500 applications in the past in one year. Obviously, we need people to process those applications.”
Fewer employees working on processing those applications will mean longer wait times for low-income residents in need of heating assistance, he said.
Benefit levels are based on a pre-sequester amount of $141 million, he said, but the state so far has received only $126 million in federal dollars.
A bill before the state Legislature for a supplemental budget includes $20 million for fuel assistance. If the Farm Workers’ Council doesn’t receive any further federal funds and is granted the additional state funds, that will leave the program with $146 million — still short of the $153 million spent last year on fuel assistance during a warmer winter, Keeney said.
Many people have already maxed out their benefits, due to higher heating oil prices and colder weather, forcing some to use dangerous space heaters, he said.
Citizens Energy, a program that assists those who have exhausted their federal fuel assistance benefits, has reduced its operating period from December through April to just February, he said.
“Things are closing in from all areas,” Keeney said.
According to James Brett, president and chief executive of the New England Council, an alliance of public and private organizations, businesses, academic and health institutions, sequestration will mean the loss of $300 million in funding for the National Institutes of Health in Massachusetts alone. He estimated the loss of another $100 million for the rest of the New England states.
Brett said these cuts will put in danger the innovative research on different diseases and types of cancer that hospitals such as the University of Massachusetts Medical system have been working on, and could possibly result in layoffs of 1,000 to 2,000 employees there and at other similar research and teaching institutions.
“That would be absolutely devastating for our region,” he said. “We are the innovation region. We’re not the Bay State, we are the brain state. All that money goes to research to find cures for dreadful diseases. We’re going to lose a lot of research scientists. They’re not going to stay in New England. They’ll go to India, they’ll go to China, they’ll go to Canada. Those countries seem to be spending more and more on research, and we’re spending less and less.”
When cures are found for diseases, they can reduce the cost of health care down the road, Brett said.
Companies that have defense contracts with the federal government will also be adversely impacted, Brett said.
Although the defense budget is only 16 percent of the total federal budget, Brett said, 60 percent of the sequestration cuts will come out of defense. He said many companies with defense contracts are already downgrading their economic forecast for this year, and he believes it will result in hundreds of lost jobs.
James LeBlanc, vice president of optical plastics company Fosta-Tek of Leominster, which supplies the U.S. Army with items such as gas mask lenses, said the federal government is already holding back on some defense contracts because of the threat of sequestration. He said a contract extension for his company should have been issued a week or two ago but has been held up.
LeBlanc is not worried, however.
“The fact that we’re diversified helps out,” he said. “If you’re not diversified, you could be out of business.”
Fosta-Tek prepared itself in anticipation of the war waning down by making sure it would be viable in other industries.
“For 10 years we were one of the largest contractors for lenses in the military. During those years we invested in the company continually, invested in the latest equipment, which we now can use for other industries,” he said.
The company has found a niche in both the automobile and safety industries, LeBlanc said, supplying items such as dash lenses for Chevrolet Camaros and firefighter helmet lenses. Fosta-Tek also specializes in optical tools, high-end injection molding, reflective and hard coatings, among other products, he said.
McGovern is holding out for hope that a more sensible agreement can be reached, that the House Republican leadership can work with the White House and the Senate to find a reasonable compromise.
“It’s time to put the people of this country ahead of political parties,” he said.
Brett is less optimistic.
“I don’t think they have the will right now to avoid these cuts,” Brett said. “I think they’re pretty much hardened in their positions, on both sides.”
McGovern and Tsongas agreed that the government needs to stop lurching from one crisis of its own making to the next.
Tsongas said that if House Speaker John Boehner is able to bring a vote to the floor within a few days of March 1, the impacts of sequestration could be controlled. If it takes a month or longer, she believes it will be much more difficult for the country and economy to recover.
According to Mayor Lisa Wong, the city of Fitchburg has lost about $6.5 million in state aid since 2008, the direct result of a long-term downward trending economy that began before she took office. She said the 80,000 the city could lose from its approximately $1 million in Community Development Block Grant funding due to sequestration pales in comparison to this amount already lost, she said.
If sequestration does occur, however, it will negatively impact the economy, leading to lower state revenues and therefore potentially further lowering the amount of state aid municipalities will receive.
Because Fitchburg receives at least $50 million of its $103 million budget from the state through various sources and programs, Wong said, the city would harshly feel the impact of significantly cut state aid — and it won’t be an amount that could be recovered through raising property taxes.
“If we see a decline in state aid, that means less money for our schools and for public safety,” she said.
Wong feels what is happening on the federal level is “extremely disconcerting” to her and others on the local level who are obligated to have balanced budgets, make tough decisions and find ways to do more with less. She also pointed to members of the community, such as those recently honored as Hometown Heroes, who are stepping up to help out one another with food and other services to fulfill needs that aren’t being met through traditional sources.
“We really hope that the federal government can get their act together and maybe take a cue from a lot of the hard work and heroic things that I’m seeing happening on the local level, here and across the commonwealth,” Wong said.
Follow Alana Melanson at facebook.com/alanasentinel or on Twitter @alanamelanson.
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