That planet is about 200 miles north on the interstate in Collin County: sprawling and well-to-do suburban Dallas. Sure, some federal grants would go away, but County Judge Keith Self said few of Collin’s 800,000-plus residents would notice. “We can handle this,” said Self, also a Republican and the county’s top elected official. “Anything we can cut — sure, absolutely.”
President Obama is painting a dire portrait of across-the-board doom and gloom from the automatic cuts, known as sequestration, set to begin Friday. But the sequester is really like a tornado, scattershot in its course. It would strike some communities and largely bypass others, cutting across class, politics and geography.
Interviews with more than a dozen state and municipal leaders coast to coast show that the sequester would afflict big cities and military communities — because of cuts to social programs and defense — far more than middle-class suburbs or rural areas. The disparity in some ways mirrors the nation’s electoral divide between Democrats and Republicans.
The discrepancies help explain why House Republicans — many of whom represent rural and outer suburban districts — feel little urgency to strike a deal with Obama and avert the sequester. They also suggest that the misery expected Friday would not be universal, meaning that public outcry may not be loud or widespread enough to propel Washington toward a quick solution.
“Until the pain gets hard enough, they probably won’t do anything,” said Steve Bell of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The sequester is a package of across-the-board, indiscriminate spending cuts that total $85 billion for the current fiscal year and $1.2 trillion over the next decade. The cuts are split evenly between the defense budget and non-defense discretionary spending, which includes many federal grants to state and local agencies. Mandatory programs, including Social Security and Medicaid, are spared.
Military communities would be hit hard with work stoppages. Pay for border patrol agents would be cut. Some funding for teachers would get the ax, and reductions are in store for HIV testing, job-search assistance and Meals on Wheels for senior citizens.
And yet the federal government is so sprawling that millions of Americans may never feel any effect from the cuts.
“This is going to hit some areas and regions much more than others,” Bell said. “This is not a situation where on the second of March the lights are going to go off or people are going to be sent home. This is a slow-moving kind of situation which will aggregate itself.”
In Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest public school district would lose $37 million in federal funding. Schools Superintendent John Deasy said that amounts to about $100,000 per school — “easily an employee or employee and a half.” The budget cuts would specifically impact programs that help impoverished students, many of whom speak Spanish, prepare for kindergarten and learn to read.
“It affects the youth who live in greatest poverty much more so than just across the district,” Deasy said. “The effects are you don’t come to school ready to learn in kindergarten, you don’t learn to read by the end of third grade and you don’t graduate on time.”
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak (D) said the budget cuts would impact the most vulnerable residents of his city. Head Start and employment training programs would suffer, and some grant money to fight crime in high-impact neighborhoods would disappear.
“Minneapolis is a very successful city on almost every level except we have a very large gap between haves and have-nots, and this will cut exactly those services that help close the gap,” he said.
Besides these cuts, Rybak said any other impact from the sequester would be more indirect — such as a corresponding dip in the consumer economy. He said he worries that Target and Best Buy,which are headquartered in Minneapolis, might have declining sales if customers nationwide spend less amid the uncertainty.
For Hennepin County, which encompasses Minneapolis and many of its suburbs, the impact would be minimal, said Mike Opat, chairman of Hennepin County Board of Commissioners.
“If you’re not receiving a check or food stamps, you’re probably not likely to hear the impact of the sequester immediately,” he said. “If there are teachers that are laid off, that would be one example, but the general middle-class citizen is not going to feel this right away.”
The same cannot be said for military communities like Newport News, where Obama visited a nuclear submarine factory on Tuesday to sound the alarm about deep defense cuts.
In Hinesville, Ga., where Fort Stewart dominates the local economy, Mayor James Thomas Jr. said the sequester would have a $56 million impact, forcing furloughs at the massive Army post. He said it would be the biggest blow to Hinesville’s businesses since the Persian Gulf War in 1990, when thousands of U.S. troops deployed to Kuwait.
“This is serious,” Thomas said, echoing the concerns of Corbin, the mayor of Killeen. “When you have a military installation next to your city, you’ve got to be very concerned about anything that affects them because it affects us all.”
There are similar worries along Arizona’s border with Mexico, where agents with the U.S. Border Patrol are bracing for furloughs. Art Del Cueto, president of Local 2544, the union that represents more than 3,000 border patrol agents, said the forced time off would mean pay cuts of up to 40 percent.
“Who in this country can afford a 40 percent pay cut?” Del Cueto said. “If they’re saying it’s not going to have an impact, that’s lying. They need to come down here and walk in the agents’ boots.”
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