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‘Sequester’ is a dumb word that masks painful budget cuts — and local impacts



This time, it looks like Congress and the White House really will take America — and Nevada — over the fiscal cliff. Those pillars of government agreed in the Budget Control Act of 2011 to deliver automatic funding cuts of $1.2 trillion over 10 years if they failed to pass a complete budget — sort of a self-imposed threat to shoot themselves in the foot if they failed to get the job done.

The sequester, as it was dubbed, is just the latest in a series of budget crises conjured up by our federal leaders — and this one will go into effect Friday, March 1, unless Congress moves very quickly to find an escape.

If “sequester” sounds familiar, you’ve been paying attention. It was first scheduled to go into effect in January, but Congress and President Obama scrambled to forestall the across-the-board hammer and managed to push the sequester back two months.

Unless lawmakers do something before the end of February, though, both defense and non-defense spending would see significant cuts. Everything from airline travel to children’s lunch programs, border security to drug treatment programs would be affected, with $85.4 billion cut in the first year. Absent congressional action, the cuts would continue every year for a decade.

Observers in D.C. and in Nevada suspect that the latest self-imposed fiscal calamity is for real. Congress, instead of heading off sequestration, sent its 535 senators and representatives home last week for a 10-day recess.

Congresswoman Dina Titus, who represents much of metropolitan Las Vegas, said she was disappointed that the House and Senate leaders took the recess.

“I thought the House should have stayed in session to find common ground and avert the sequester,” Titus said. “I voted against having this recess, but only four Republicans agreed with me. With only four legislative days until the automatic cuts are set to take effect, I’m concerned there is just not enough time to find a balanced approach that reduces our deficit and allows us to avoid these indiscriminate cuts.” Titus and the Democratic caucus, the minority in the House, are concerned that sequestration could cripple the nascent economic recovery.

“The automatic cuts would eliminate good paying jobs and adversely affect services and programs that are vital to Southern Nevada,” she said. “I believe we need a balanced approach that cuts wasteful spending, closes loopholes, reforms our tax code and invests in our economic recovery.”

Republican Congressman Joe Heck declined detailed comment, but a spokesman said Heck also is opposed to the sequester because of its impact on Defense Department programs and the military.

The economic impact of sequestration could be significant.

Nevada would lose more than 10,400 jobs in just the first year of the sequestration, according to a widely cited study by a George Mason University researcher.

According to a report released last summer by the Senate Appropriations Committee, Nevada programs will lose tens of millions, and programs helping low-income populations in schools and health care will be hit especially hard.

Education support for Nevada schools could lose an estimated $18.5 million, affecting thousands. Simply because of the large population served in Clark County, most of the cuts would affect the Las Vegas area.

Among expected impacts: 133 education jobs would be lost through the cuts in education grants, and some 15,000 students would lose services. More than 1,600 teachers would lose funding for professional development.

Health and Human Services would have to reduce support for Nevada programs by about $7.7 million, and impacts would include: 77 Head Start jobs lost and 371 fewer children served for the preschool program; the loss of maternal and child health-care assistance to almost 14,000 Nevadans; loss of subsidized vaccinations for almost 1,800 children.

More than 500 domestic violence victims would lose services, and more than 800 people would lose access to substance-abuse treatment programs. Some seniors would lose meals delivered to their homes.

Social services and education won’t be the only losers. The Defense Department would face a 9 percent slice. Nellis and Creech Air Force bases, civilian employees and defense contractors would lose jobs and funding.

For the Common Defense, a national nonprofit working to minimize cuts to defense spending under sequestration and deficit-control measures, estimates that Nevada defense contractors, large and small, could lose $239 million annually. The group estimates at least 4,575 defense-related jobs lost in Nevada. The White House estimated about 3,000 furloughs just among civilian Defense Department employees statewide.

Other impacts highlighted by the White House in a Feb. 24 release include the loss of:

• About $1.2 million in environmental funding to protect water and air quality and prevent pollution from pesticides and hazardous waste. In addition, Nevada could lose $764,000 in grants for fish and wildlife protection.

• About $181,000 in law enforcement grants, including funds for crime victim and witness initiatives.

• Some $291,000 in funding for job search assistance and placement that would help more than 10,800 people find work.

• Funding for child care for up to 100 disadvantaged and vulnerable children, programs that assist working parents to keep working.

• Approximately $258,000 in funds to respond to public health threats, including infectious diseases, disasters and biological, chemical and nuclear events. In addition, Nevada will lose about $690,000 to help prevent and treat substance abuse, resulting in around 500 fewer admissions to treatment programs. And the state Department of Health/Human Services will lose about $123,000 resulting in around 3,100 fewer HIV tests.

• Up to $57,000 in funds that provide services to victims of domestic violence, resulting in up to 200 fewer victims being served.

In addition, the White House warned that aviation, transportation and national parks agencies would lose funding, and that could lead to Vegas-specific impacts, including flight delays and reductions in park services at Lake Mead National Recreation Area.