Minnesotans are bracing for a smaller slice of federal pie

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 2, 2013 - 9:03 AM

Federal reductions may appear small at first, but effects could be widespread (and painful) throughout the state.

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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’

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  • Brittany Collins, who receives WIC benefits and also works part-time for the Women, Infants and Children program, prepared snacks for her three children and two of her neighbor’s kids.

  • WIC nutrition educator Traci Rounds worked with client Susanna Melgar and her son Oscar, 2, at the WIC office in St. Paul. She took his height, weight and tested his hemoglobin.

  • where the cuts are

    $85 billion in federal spending cuts

    $42.7 billion in defense cuts

    $28.7 billion domestic discretionary cuts

    $9.9 billion in Medicare cuts

    $4 billion in other cuts

    In Minnesota:

    State budget: minus $117 million to programs Federal funding: minus 1 percent to Minnesota Defense contractors: minus $349 millionMaternal and child health services: cuts to food assistance and health careEducation: minus $34 million for programsJob training: 20,795 fewer people served

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