By JERI CLAUSING
ALBUQUERQUE – Thousands of federal workers and contractors in New Mexico face unpaid furloughs. Santa Fe, Roswell and Hobbs could lose their airport control towers. And programs that fund everything from education and the environment to vaccines and care for the young and elderly could be reduced by automatic budget cuts set to take effect Friday.
But while many of the immediate and long-term impacts of federal spending cuts remain unclear, one thing is certain: New Mexico – with its strong economic dependence on federal labs and the military – stands to be one of the states most affected.
New Mexico has twice the national average of federal workers, according to New Mexico State University economist Chris Erickson. More than 4 percent of the state’s workers are federal employees, compared with the national average of 2 percent. And federal spending makes up 12 percent of New Mexico’s gross state product.
If Congress leaves the budget-cutting plan in place for the long term, Erickson estimated it would cost New Mexico 28,000 jobs. An earlier analysis by the University of New Mexico estimated a loss of 20,000 jobs.
In fact, the state already has lost jobs just from the threat of the automatic cuts that Congress refers to as “sequestration,” Erickson said.
“Many federal agencies have already been husbanding their funds in anticipation of sequestration,” he said, estimating half of this year’s required cuts already have been made. “As a consequence, we have already seen a decline in spending in the state.”
For example, military bases are not renewing temporary contracts, which has already cost jobs, Erickson said.
At White Sands Missile Range, he said, there are 1,000 uniformed workers, 1,000 civilians and 6,000 contractors. Unless Congress reaches a compromise to stem or otherwise change the cuts, the civil employees will have to take 22 unpaid furlough days before the end of September. And Erickson estimates 1,000 of the contractors will lose their jobs this year.
Similar stories will play out across the state’s other military bases and at Sandia and Los Alamos National laboratories.
In a Feb. 13 memo to employees, Los Alamos National Lab Director Charles McMillan said no reductions to the regular workforce were expected, but furloughs would be possible and contracts were being reviewed. Officials at Sandia said they were reevaluating hiring plans.
At Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, spokeswoman Marie Vanover said the base has reviewed all of its contracts, implemented a hiring freeze and cut supply purchases. Additionally, she said, flying hours will be reduced by 10 percent, and air shows and advanced pilot classes will be cancelled.
A report released by the White House last weekend said a total of 7,000 civilian military employees in New Mexico would face furloughs. It also detailed a number of other cuts, from programs that provide meals to seniors, to $4.4 million in funding for educating children with disabilities, to $1.2 million for clean air and water.
Four state airports also may lose staffing for their air traffic control towers. An FAA official confirmed that three commercial airports – Santa Fe, Hobbs and Roswell – as well as the Double Eagle general aviation airport in Albuquerque are on the agency’s tower hit list. But the FAA and airport officials said it is up to individual airlines whether they would continue to service those airports if tower staff is cut.
A spokesman for American Airlines, which services Santa Fe and Roswell, said it’s “too soon to discuss” that question. United, which flies to Hobbs, declined to comment, referring questions to an industry group in Washington, which called the issue “premature” as no tower furloughs would occur before April 7. But Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said that while commercial flights can fly into airports without control towers, “efficiency is drastically reduced.”
“Safety risks would go up,” he said.