Local Politics

Wednesday, Feb 27 2013 07:38 PM

Kern's military bases, education could feel impact of 'sequester'

BY ANDREW DOOLITTLE California News Service

WASHINGTON -- Congress' failure to reach a budget agreement could cut working hours for thousands of civilians employed at the region's military bases, curtail senior meal programs and lead to delays at airports.

As the automatic spending cuts -- known as the sequester -- come into clearer focus, officials are warning that Californians from Berkeley to Bakersfield will feel the effects.

California stands to lose up to $3.2 billion in federal defense spending, and hundreds of millions more for public health, education and the environment if lawmakers do not come up with an 11th-hour deal to avert the sequester on Friday.

The automatic cuts are part of a deal Congress reached in 2011 to increase the nation's debt ceiling. Republicans and Democrats agreed that spending cuts amounting to $1.2 trillion over 10 years -- evenly divided between military and domestic programs -- would automatically take effect if they could not agree on a plan to reduce the nation's debt.

With no signs of a compromise, federal officials are preparing.

The Department of Defense, which will absorb half of the cuts, has informed more than 700,000 civilian employees to expect unpaid one-day-a-week furloughs starting next month.

That includes thousands at Edwards Air Force Base and Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, which together employ nearly 8,000 civilians.

"We're all hoping sequestration doesn't happen," said Peggy Shoaf, public affairs officer for NAWS China Lake. "As of now, we are still waiting on orders by the Department of Defense.''

The state's national parks face similar cuts. Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Death Valley and Yosemite national parks expect to take up to a $2.7 million blow, according to an internal memo obtained by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

The group predicted the sequester would cost national parks thousands of jobs and lead to furloughs for all park employees. The Park Service has not announced details of their cuts, but is expected to reduce their visitor services and shorten seasons.

Hoping to pressure Republicans in Congress into making a deal, the White House released estimates this week of how each state would feel the sequester.

Some of the cuts are alarming, while others may go largely unnoticed due to California's size.

For example, the White House warned that California would lose nearly $88 million in funds for primary and secondary education, putting 1,210 teacher and teaching aide jobs at risk.

However, the number represents less than half of one percent of the state's 283,000 teachers.

On Tuesday, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson sent a letter to Congress urging them to stave off the cuts. He warned that the loss of Title I and special education funds, in addition to other education programs, would amount to a $262 million loss this year.

"These cuts come at a time when California is just beginning a recovery from state-level cuts of over $20 billion to education spending over the last five years," Torlakson wrote.

The cuts touch upon almost every area of federal spending.

California's Agency on Aging, which provides meals for millions of seniors including thousands in Kern County, must absorb the loss of $5.4 million -- roughly 10 percent of its budget -- according to the White House report.

United for Medical Research, a coalition of research institutions, universities and advocates in the health industry that seek funding for the National Institutes of Health, said the state would lose $170 million in awards which could affect more than 3,000 jobs.

The Federal Aviation Administration has warned that cuts will force the agency to furlough or lay off hundreds of air traffic controllers, which will force some rural airports to close.

The air traffic control tower at Edward Air Force Base's High Desert TRACON is among those where overnight shifts could be eliminated. Meadows Airport will not be directly affected.

Mark Bautista, president of the Association of California Airports, expressed concern that cuts could pose safety concerns.

"Eliminating the operation of any air traffic control towers at airports in California is not a good idea and will not improve the safety of aircraft and the flying public," Bautista wrote in an e-mail.

In Bakersfield, Meadows Field does not expect to lose any positions, according to Jack Gotcher, Kern County director of airports. However, he acknowledged that delays at larger airports such as SFO and LAX could hamper operations locally.

"Things could slow down a little bit,'' Gotcher said.

-- The California News Service is a journalism project of the University of California Washington Center and the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. Email the California News Service at cns@ucdc.edu.

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