Federal reductions may appear small at first, but effects could be widespread (and painful) throughout the state.
There’s the elderly woman with a paid companion to drive her for errands once a week; a Minneapolis mother who gets help buying fresh fruit; the air traffic controller facing a weekly furlough day; a military family stationed overseas.
These are some of the Minnesotans wrestling with uncertainty as $85 billion in federal budget cuts, including hundreds of millions of dollars in Minnesota, began taking effect Friday. The impact won’t be immediate, but many already feel the anxiety.
“We need to see how the federal government plays out these cuts. We haven’t gotten a lot of guidance,” said Charles Johnson, chief financial officer at the state Department of Human Services.
From a distance, some cuts may not look severe. Hennepin County’s Human Services and Public Health Department, for example, could lose $1.1 million from $465 million in annual federal funds. But many of the agencies facing reductions have run lean for years in a down economy, and the cuts would be felt, they say.
Peggy Compton hopes to hang onto the four hours a week that a companion helps her with errands, under a program run by Lutheran Social Services. Compton, 87, who doesn’t drive, needs help getting groceries and to the doctor.
“I have a lot of respect for these people,” she said. “They’re barely getting paid anything and they’re so good with the older people.”
Under the cuts, about 30 Minnesotans who rely on the aides could lose them, said Lutheran Social Services spokeswoman Jackie Nelson. LSS gets help from the government in funding the program.
At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, air traffic controller Sam Tomlin also worries about the uncertainty ahead.
He said the 32 controllers in the MSP control tower expect to be furloughed as much as one day a week beginning in April. That would mean delays in flights and mail, he said. “With fewer controllers, there’s going to be fewer planes in the sky,” Tomlin said.
Tension already is high at the Employment Action Center, funded mostly by federal money through Hennepin County, said Marc Geiselhart, division director of adult employment services.
The center helps adults in poverty get training for new careers. One of them is Lanaya Baker, who at 57 is broke and hasn’t had full-time work since she lost her six-figure job selling computer software in 2008.
Baker said she gets turned down time after time for jobs because she’s “overqualified” and employers figure she would leave an $8.50 per hour job for better paying work.
She’s in classes with Geiselhart to learn how to use small business management software. Such workforce training programs lie within the scope of possible cuts.
“So I’m going to go get this training; it’s free and I can’t afford anything,” Baker said.
Brittany Collins has two part-time jobs and her husband works full time, but they live paycheck to paycheck and depend on the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program to supplement the diets of their three children — ages 5, 3 and 1 — with fresh fruits and vegetables, milk and cereal.
WIC has been a nutritional and educational lifeline, Collins said. “My husband and I were 22 and 23 when we had our first child,” she said. “We didn’t know that much about nutrition. We were straight out of college and eating ramen noodles.”
WIC administrators emphasize that the program is fully funded through March. “We don’t want vulnerable, high-risk pregnant women and children thinking they’re not going to be able to get the help they need,” said Chris Burns, spokesman for the St. Paul Ramsey County Public Health Department.
‘A big question mark’
But, like others, he doesn’t know what will happen in April. “It’s all a big question mark as to how it will get resolved,” Burns said.
At the top administrative levels of Hennepin and Ramsey counties, officials also say they’re uncertain about what is going to happen if the cuts remain in effect. Much of their funding comes in federal block grants that get filtered through the state and is out of their direct control.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said the cuts could be “dire” in his city and others, including possibly $1.5 million in public safety.
“Communities across the country are just emerging from the worst recession in the history of the United States and are looking to Congress for a smart, thoughtful solution,” he said.
In the medical arena, sequestration weighs on rural hospital administrators. Ben Koppelman, president of St. Joseph’s Area Health Services, a 25-bed critical access hospital in Park Rapids, said rural facilities receive a higher percentage of their income from Medicare reimbursements than their urban counterparts. A 2 percent reimbursement drop is slated for April 1, requiring “significant and dramatic changes,” Koppelman said.
A possible consequence: closing the hospital’s dental clinic that serves the indigent at a loss.
Budget cuts eventually could cut visiting hours and curtail amenities at U.S. national parks, according to the U.S. Interior Department. Officials at Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota could not be reached for comment.
Sequestration could also affect Minnesotans far from home.
Overseas, in Bahrain, a Minnesota family has been told their two elementary school children will be attending school for four days a week instead of five, beginning in April. Their mom asked that the family’s name not be used because her husband works in military intelligence. The children’s school is funded through the Department of Defense.
“I’m for budget cuts, but this chop is stupidity,” she said.
Military families already give up a lot, moving every couple of years, one parent deployed for increasingly long and stressful stretches of time. “They’re going to throw one more thing onto the heap for military families,” the mom said, adding: “Hey, you’re dumping on kids here, get it together, Congress.”
Staff writer Bill McAuliffe contributed to this report.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747