WASHINGTON — Nearly a month after the sequester triggered $85 billion in automatic cuts to the federal budget, you’d be hard-pressed to find much evidence in Michigan or elsewhere around the U.S. that anything has changed.
Flights haven’t been grounded, jobs haven’t been lost, and government personnel haven’t been sent home en masse.
The fact is, it’s not going to be as bad as originally outlined by President Barack Obama’s administration and his Democratic allies in Congress. But even after a bipartisan deal to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year took some of the sting out of the sequester, it still left many of the cuts in place and state officials wondering precisely which reductions are coming and which aren’t.
“The most difficult part of the sequestration process has been the uncertainty,” state Budget Director John Nixon said. “There are still a number of unanswered questions.”
That’s likely to remain the case for a while.
For instance, on March 4 — after the sequester went into effect March 1 — Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano sent state officials a letter generally outlining the effects that furloughs, hiring freezes and service reductions related to the sequester could cause, including those to Customs and Border Patrol.
The deal worked out by House and Senate appropriators and signed by Obama this week added substantial funding to Customs and Border Patrol, but the union representing about 17,000 Border Patrol agents — the National Border Patrol Council — was still waiting to hear Friday whether there would be furloughs.
Without question, some of the effects of the sequester were lessened by passage of the the deal, called the continuing resolution, which moved money around inside many departments to avoid some of the harsher reductions. The sequester included a blind, across-the-board cut to all programs, without leaving room for programs that could be discontinued — including a no-longer operational space shuttle program, for instance — to be defunded and the money used elsewhere.
While the continuing resolution added funding for food inspections, scientific research grants and troop pay, for instance, it still kept in place the $85-billion cut, meaning there will still be reductions. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced civilian defense personnel will still face furloughs, only there will be 14 days without pay instead of 22, and they will begin in June instead of April.
How that, along with cuts to equipment budgets and research and development spending, hits personnel at defense contractors in Michigan is up in the air, however. In earlier estimates, as many as 10,000 civilian workers in Michigan were expected to face furloughs.
And there are more questions than just with defense: Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration went through with plans to close 149 contract air traffic control towers, including those at Detroit’s Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport, Battle Creek and Marquette. Education spending cuts also remained largely in place, though they won’t be felt until next school year, most likely.
Appropriators added $33 million to Head Start, but Robin Bozek, executive director with the Michigan Head Start Association, said most of that is dedicated to operating a system set up for ensuring competition between organizations that bid to provide services. She said the additional funds are expected to have little or no effect on the $14-million cut the state was expecting, or the 2,200 fewer children expected to receive services because of the reduction.
“Our piece of that pie would be miniscule,” Bozek said.
More than 75,000 Michiganders collecting unemployment benefits under a federal program that supplements the state’s are seeing an 11% cut in their checks.
“This is bad policy,” said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Flint Township Democrat, who took part in a news conference on the effects of sequestration Thursday. “It’s bad for Michigan, and it comes at a time when we can least afford it.”
That may still depend, however, on deciphering exactly what “it” is.
“We are working closely with our state agencies and their corresponding federal counterparts to determine precisely what the cut levels will be to each program,” said Nixon, the state budget director. “But at this point, there are still more questions than answers.”