Looming budget cuts spur concern

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Deadline for averting automatic federal spending cuts nears

High-ranking politicians and regular citizens alike are keeping an eye on discussions about across-the-board federal spending cuts and the possible impact if no agreement is reached by Friday.

If no agreement occurs, then automatic budget cuts — the sequester — will take effect, which may have far-reaching effects on local businesses and agencies, officials say.

U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, said the sequester has actually already happened.

“It happened the first of the year. The automatic cuts were delayed for two months,” said Burgess. “The history of the sequester is interesting. It was a maneuver set up by the White House so Obama did not have to deal with the debt limit again before his re-election.”

Burgess said the clock is ticking down to the time where the savings that were supposed to be part of the previous deal are going to come online and it’s now viewed as a bad idea.

“That’s not really the way to do things, but across-the-board cuts seem to be the only way to get some savings,” he said.

Burgess said he understands that every line in the budget has a constituent somewhere who cares about those dollars, so across-the-board cuts, while he favors them, would be difficult.

According to a White House news release, some impacts to Texas will include the state losing approximately $67.8 million in funding for primary and secondary education, leaving 930 teacher and aide jobs at risk. Fewer low-income students will receive college tuition aid and fewer work-study jobs will be available. Head Start programs would lose money and military readiness would stand to be affected, according to the release.

According to a 2013-14 budget discussion made to Denton school board members Tuesday, more than $9.19 million in district funding is subject to sequestration.

Programs that could be impacted include Title 1, which supports disadvantaged students and schools with a large percentage of students on free and reduced lunch; Title II, which impacts professional and staff development; Title III, which, impacts English as a Second Language and bilingual services; Head Start; and a portion of special education funding, said Mike Mattingly, district assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and staff development.

Funding for those programs, he said, level the playing field for disadvantaged, special education and English as a Second Language and bilingual students. He said it would be “quite devastating” for sequestration to occur.

“Any money we get from the federal government could be [impacted],” Mattingly said.

He said that while the district may have some rollover money, it is preparing for the sequestration and attempting to be careful with its spending.

“We’re watching the actions in Washington, D.C., very carefully,” Mattingly said. He said he’s hopeful officials in Washington will protect initiatives funded by federal dollars that benefit students and schools.

Local university officials say the potential impact at this time is unclear.

If Congress doesn’t halt the sequestration, there is expected to be impacts to federal student financial aid programs, particularly work-study and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant programs in the first year, said Buddy Price, spokesman for the University of North Texas. After that, a reduction in the overall spending cap for education appropriations could result in cuts to all federal student aid programs, he said.

“Assuming the worst-case scenario, it could be as much as a 5.1 percent reduction,” Price said. That translates into a $150,000 reduction for work-study and financial aid, he said.

Price said UNT won’t know how it affects individual students until the deadline passes.

“UNT will have to look at available funding and make decisions on how to stretch the funds to serve the most students,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Education will notify the universities on the total reduction once the deadline passes.

Burgess said it has been difficult getting the heads of federal and state agencies to appear before the appropriate committees to discuss the issue and what is ahead in the cuts.

Still, he said, those in charge of the various agencies should be able to find ways of achieving savings without affecting critical activities.

“I do think the cuts are going to come online. But there is nothing to say Congress can’t come back and add money to [an agency],” Burgess said.

The bottom line, he said, is the government is spending way too much money.

“I know Democrats and Republicans disagree in all aspects of this,” he said.

He said that, “Probably, the first real effect would be felt later in the spring.”

Burgess said cuts are necessary because tax increases won’t solve the problem.

“Right now we’re talking the easiest lifting when it comes to cutting the federal budget,” he said. “The harder stuff will come later.”

The harder stuff is something that Bing Burton, the Denton County Health Department director, is worried about.

Texas Health Commissioner David Lake advised him about a possible 8 percent cut in funding for programs such as public health preparedness, Burton said.

“I think we’re talking about perhaps next year’s budget,” he said. “Right now we’re in a wait-and-see mode and then we would explore alternatives.”

Denton Enterprise Airport is not on the closure list because it conducts more than 150,000 operations per year, said Quentin Hix, director of aviation.

Hix said airports with less than 150,000 operations are expected to be affected by the sequester.

A 2012 Federal Aviation Administration report for contract towers nationwide lists Denton, identified by the airport code DTO, as the third-most active with 157,986 annual operations.

A list of possible tower closures released by the FAA on Feb. 22 includes nearly 50 percent of control towers nationwide.

“Although DTO is not on the potential closure list, the impact of sequestration on general aviation safety and service is of concern locally,” he said. “The North Central Texas Council of Governments projects the regional economic impact of general aviation to be [a loss of] $21.5 billion and 323,139 total jobs.”

The issue is on the mind of local elected officials as well.

In an e-mailed statement, District 64 Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, said, “My committee is working with the affected state agencies to prepare for any cuts in federal funding that occur as a result of sequestration.”

Staff writers John D. Harden, Rachel Mehlhaff and Britney Tabor contributed to this report.

BJ LEWIS can be reached at 940-566-6875. His e-mail address is blewis@dentonrc.com .


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