Washington Watch: Sequestration and Louisiana

by jordan blum

Advocate Washington bureau

Washington Bureau writer Jordan Blum
Washington Bureau writer Jordan Blum

After taking a week away from Washington, D.C., Congress returns Monday to deal with the latest manufactured financial apocalypse facing the country.

This congressionally created situation is the $85.4 billion in across-the-board federal budget cuts, called sequestration, that begin going into effect March 1 unless Congress acts or at least kicks the can down the road again.

Half of the cuts are going to the U.S. Defense Department, $10 billion will come from Medicaid and most of the rest will spread out among nondefense federal discretionary spending ­— everything from special education grants to oil-and-gas permitting.

So what does this mean for Louisiana?

Well, a suburban Virginia-based George Mason University study estimates that Louisiana would directly and indirectly lose well over 20,000 jobs ranging from teachers to small business job losses during another recession.

In the area of defense, Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins said they have 6,646 civilian employees spread out throughout Louisiana that could soon start losing one day of pay a week through furloughs. “With few exceptions, they will all be subject to furlough,” Robbins said.

The salaries of actual military personnel are exempted, but their benefits packages for themselves and their families are not and would face cutbacks.

Shipbuilding and fabrication represent major industries in southern Louisiana and now there would be fewer dollars for construction projects of military vessels etc.

Pick any federal agency and look at the impacts. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said major airports will face delays because of Federal Aviation Administration cutbacks and some smaller airports will face complete shutdowns of facilities.

New Orleans Lakefront Airport, Lake Charles Regional Airport, Chennault International Airport in Lake Charles, Shreveport Downtown Airport and Monroe Regional Airport are all on the potential hit list to have their air-traffic-control facilities closed starting in April.

A helpful House Appropriations Committee summary notes that Louisiana would stand to lose about $27 million in annual education grants that fund teachers, tutors, after-school programs, special education assistance and more.

Additionally, Louisiana would have about $9 million less in Head Start funding for early childhood education.

Concerned about ongoing state budget cuts to higher education in Louisiana? Well, LSU, for instance, has struggled with tougher competition for research grants, faculty and graduate students in recent years. The sequester would heighten those losses by dramatically decreasing the pool of federal grant dollars. The top grant awarders — the National Science Foundation is slated for about a $500 million hit and the National Institutes of Health is facing a $1.6 billion cut.

“It’s just very frustrating,” said Thomas Klei, LSU interim vice chancellor for research and economic development. “I worry about our young faculty who are just starting out and trying to get funding.”

In terms of literal disasters, Hurricane Isaac was a relatively weak hurricane last year but still caused major flooding in Louisiana. Now, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is looking at a more than $1 billion loss in its disaster funding pool.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also is facing sizable cutbacks that would further delay already-stalled flood protection projects in southern Louisiana.

Then there’s the issue of Interior Department cutbacks slowing oil-and-gas production in Louisiana and in the Gulf of Mexico because the permitting and inspections processes would be slowed by having fewer federal resources and employees.

“Ironically, a cut of this magnitude would mean less (oil-and-gas) revenues for the federal government, as well as the increased possibility of fraud as audits would have to be curtailed,” according to the Appropriations Committee breakdown.

Worried about border security? That’s going to take about a $900 million hit.

Still angry over the U.S. embassy attack in Benghazi in Libya? Well, the State Department’s embassy security budget would lose $168 million.

Of course, many of these potential issues are solvable if Republicans and Democrats can come together and agree on cuts and savings. But “optimism” and “compromise” are not among the most common words in Washington these days.

Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is jblum@theadvocate.com.