Arizona braces for federal budget cuts

PHOENIX - Dirty bathrooms, closed trails and longer lines at Grand Canyon National Park. Furloughs for thousands of civilian defense workers. Reduced health care access.

Across the state, Arizonans are bracing for federal spending cuts that will take effect Friday barring compromise between President Barack Obama and the House Republican leadership over a plan to reduce the national debt.

The White House estimates that in Arizona 10,000 civilian defense workers could be forced to take unpaid time off and 360 public school jobs would be put at risk because of the mandatory budget reductions known as the "sequester." Obama administration officials also said Arizona will see program cuts in children's vaccines, senior nutrition, student work-study jobs and assistance for victims of domestic violence.

Some cuts will be visible immediately, such as at the Grand Canyon, where park officials cannot hire seasonal workers to help with the expected jump in visitors during spring break season. That could mean no lecture programs, shorter visitor center hours, longer lines at entrance stations and fewer maintenance workers.

"There is a really good chance that you would see those impacts right away," said Maureen Oltrogge, a park spokeswoman. "If you don't have a clean bathroom, that's not the experience you want to have."

Federal employee furloughs could begin in mid-April. As those workers spend less on goods and services, private businesses might reduce their workers' hours. The slowdown would come as Arizona's vulnerable housing and jobs markets are gaining traction after years of gloomy outlooks.

"In the short term, it is a yellow flag kind of warning," said Stephen Fuller, a George Mason University professor who has studied the potential effects of the sequestration nationally and in Arizona. But if Congress doesn't act soon, "there will be less spending, and ultimately that will cost more jobs," Fuller said.

Some of Arizona's high-profile losses would include $49 million in Army and Air Force operations; $52 million in loss pay for furloughed Department of Defense employees; $17.7 million in primary education dollars; $781,000 for job-search assistance; and $2.7 million in public health programs, including vaccinations for children and substance abuse assistance.

In Maricopa County, home to more than half of the state's population, 51 percent of the public health budget is paid for by federal grants.

"There's a sense that some of the reductions could happen sooner rather than later," said John Arnold, the state budget director.

Border security would also take a hit. Arizona could see 1,000 fewer Border Patrol agents. Average peak wait times at the Nogales port of entry could drag on for up to four hours, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Social Security, Medicaid, Pell Grants, federal highway construction and school nutrition aid are exempt from the cuts.

Small and mid-sized defense companies would be especially vulnerable to federal cuts, and could be forced to lay off workers or shut down, according to an analysis by the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. More than 5 percent of Arizona's gross domestic product depends on federal defense spending, the council said.

Luke Air Force Base in Glendale has already taken steps to trim its spending. Its annual air show, which draws thousands of spectators, was cancelled earlier this month and non-critical services, training and travel has been curtailed. More than 850 civilian employees at the base face furloughs, according to a base spokesman.

At the Army's Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista, federal employees are anxiously waiting for furlough notices.

"It's tough because it's something that we don't have control over," said Tanja Linton, the base's spokeswoman and one of the 3,300 civilian workers at the base facing a 20 percent pay cut. "It means a lot of big financial decisions, like new cars, vacations, any big expenditures, are on hold pending some decision on whether or not we have to go through this."

If the cuts take effect, the base would have food to feed soldiers, but no civilian workers to prepare and serve meals.

"It might be a lot of MREs for a while," said Linton, referring to the prepared meals that are dietary staples in battle zones.

As federal military spending dwindles, Arizona's mighty defense contractors might be forced to reduce their workforces, U.S. Sen. John McCain said during a town hall meeting outside Phoenix last week.

"The economy is beginning to crawl back in Arizona and this could be a big blow," McCain said.

Tucson's Raytheon Missile Systems employs more than 11,500 people in Arizona, while aerospace giant Boeing Co. has nearly 5,000 workers.

Raytheon declined to comment on potential layoffs, but Boeing officials said the company has taken significant cost-saving steps, including consolidation and workforce redeployment.

K-12 schools with disproportionate numbers of low-income and special education students would see the biggest

cuts starting in July, when districts expect to receive funding for the new school year.

"Teachers aren't going to go to work on Monday and get a pink slip or anything like that," said Chris Kotterman, the state Department of Education's deputy associate superintendent for government relations. "But does it create a lot of uncertainty for employees of school districts? Certainly."

Joshua Watson, a student government leader at Arizona State University, said students have been discussing the potential ramifications of the sequester on Facebook and Twitter in recent months.

"We are the future economy," Watson said. "How are we supposed to get through all of this?"

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