S.C. braces for deep federal spending cuts

WASHINGTON — They may be more than a year away, but looming federal spending cuts, forced by the special deficit-reduction panel’s failure to reach a deal, have folks across South Carolina concerned.

They are worried at Savannah River Site, which could see a $110 million cut in money for toxic-waste cleanup — a cut that would likely mean fewer jobs at the Aiken County complex.

They are worried at Force Protection in Ladson, which makes armored vehicles for the military, at FN Manufacturing in Columbia, which supplies guns to the military, and at dozens of other defense contractors that employ thousands of people across the state.

They also are worried at public schools, three-quarters of which get federal money, now threatened, for low-income students, one of the nation’s highest rates for Title 1 education funding.

While welfare, Medicaid and other safety-net programs are exempt from the cuts, community leaders also fear for low-income South Carolinians, who depend on federal aid to help pay their rent or summer air-conditioning bills.

“We’re just going to get slammed,” said Sue Berkowitz, head of Appleseed Legal Justice Center in Columbia. “South Carolina is such a poor state. So many programs that help low-income people would definitely be in trouble.”

Fort Jackson, Shaw Air Force Base and other military hubs in the state could see pay freezes or even layoffs for some of their 11,000-plus civilian employees.

With the next-generation F-35 fighter plane under fire in Congress for production delays and higher-than-projected costs, the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons system is a prime target for absorbing a chunk of the more than $500 billion in required defense cuts.

That could slow or even halt current upgrading and expansion of the Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station to accommodate three F-35 squadrons.

In a letter last month to U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the Pentagon might have to terminate the entire F-35 program because of the forced cuts, forgoing plans to buy 2,443 of the aircraft for the Army, Navy and Marines.

With the spending reductions required to be split equally between defense and nondefense programs, South Carolina could lose close to $1 billion in 2013, the first year of forced cuts. Those cuts would continue through 2021.

Graham, the Seneca Republican who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says he especially is worried about defense cuts, even though active-duty military personnel are exempt.

“I realize our current budget situation demands that everything, including defense, be on the table for some level of spending reductions,” Graham said. “But if the Pentagon is forced to live with an additional $600 billion in cuts ... we will hollow out the most effective military in the history of the world.”

Graham and McCain have vowed to try to block the defense cuts, though they won’t say how.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Congress passed the Budget Control Act in August. President Barack Obama and Democratic congressional allies received authorization to raise the federal debt ceiling. In exchange, GOP lawmakers extracted creation of a bipartisan “supercommittee,” tasked to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over nine years.

The rub was that most Republicans want to reach that target through spending cuts alone, while Democrats prefer a mix of cuts and “increased revenues” — code for tax hikes.

To pressure the six Republicans and six Democrats on the panel to reach a deal, Congress said forced cuts — or sequestration — would slash broadly across government if the committee failed to agree on a plan.

It failed.

House Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn of Columbia, who sat on the special committee, wants his colleagues to reconsider the required spending reductions.

“These across-the-board cuts are a meat-ax approach, rather than using a scalpel,” Clyburn said. “I don’t believe it is anyone’s intent to make our military less prepared or to scale back nutrition programs for our most vulnerable citizens. Yet that would be the effect if the automatic triggers take place.”

U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, an Indian Land Republican in his first year in Congress, thinks there is a decent chance that Congress will come up with a better way of cutting at least $1.2 trillion before the forced cuts start Jan. 1, 2013.

“Generally, there is dissatisfaction with the sequestration,” Mulvaney said. “Generally, people don’t like the fact that the military bore 50 percent of the reductions. Give us 13 months, and I think we’ll be able to find those cost savings in a way that has bipartisan support.”

Mulvaney said he might back a plan floated last month by U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., to include $300 billion to $600 billion in tax increases, mainly through slicing federal subsidies to farmers, oil companies, green energy firms and decreasing some income-tax deductions.

But if Congress fails to act, Mulvaney wants the forced cuts to go forward, painful though they may be. “The deal was the debt ceiling would go up but spending would be reduced by the same amount,” he said. “We need to keep that deal.”

Mulvaney said he is willing to keep that deal even if it means Sumter’s Shaw Air Force Base, located in his 5th Congressional District, takes a hit along with other military facilities across the country.