Across-the-board federal budget cuts are already unsettling the lives of Minnesotans, and more painful measures are coming this summer and fall.
WASHINGTON – Dustin Hawkins has been socking away money and putting off home repairs for months. An electrician with the Minneapolis-St. Paul Air Reserve Station, Hawkins knows that starting next month he’s looking at a 20 percent cut in pay, courtesy of federal reductions known as the sequester.
Starting July 1, Hawkins will be among more than 2,400 federal Department of Defense employees in Minnesota forced to work a reduced, four-day week for several months. Those furloughs will be spread across 63 sites statewide, but Duluth’s 148th Fighter Wing, Camp Ripley in Little Falls and St. Paul’s 133rd Airlift Wing — the units with the highest concentration of federal employees — face the brunt of the cutbacks.
In Brooklyn Park, Lois Mueller, 81, has started counting her pennies in case Meals on Wheels, which relies on federal funding, starts charging for the food that volunteers bring to her home twice a week.
A single mother of five living in north Minneapolis, Yvonne White frets about whether Head Start will be there for her youngest son come September. She and Matrese, 4, often ride the bus together to the neighborhood program, where Matrese busily preps for school while White picks up parenting and nutrition tips.
Across Minnesota, those who depend on federal services are bracing for fallout from the sequester. Other states will be hit harder, but as Minnesotans are starting to realize, even small shifts in federal spending can jumble their lives.
“There’s a lot of people who think the government will stop this before it happens,” said Hawkins, of Chanhassen. “This is going to hit hard. I have absolutely no faith in our elected officials … to come up with a sensible solution.”
Six months after Mueller suffered a stroke last year, volunteers from Metro Meals on Wheels began delivering meals to her home, helping her stretch her strict budget.
“It’s a godsend,” Mueller said of the meals.
But facing higher demand and an anticipated loss of $30,000 in federal funds, the organization plans to redouble its efforts to get clients like Mueller to contribute $1 to $5 per meal, said Executive Director Patrick Rowan.
At that price, Mueller said she’d probably rely on the occasional meals her adult children bring. “Hopefully, it wouldn’t make that much difference,” she said.
In the months since the across-the-board federal cuts took effect, the unemployment rate in Minnesota has held steady, the labor force has grown and the economy has weathered the loss of 200 federal jobs.
“Minnesota’s just not hugely dependent upon federal assistance,” said State Economist Tom Stinson.
That’s no comfort to those affected.
Federal courts are feeling the pinch, with defendants waiting longer for trials.
Katherian Roe, chief federal public defender in Minnesota, said she has yanked attorneys off high-profile trials to prevent a backlog of lower-level cases. To keep her attorneys paid, she has cut back on paid expert witnesses and let vacant positions go unfilled. Even so, the caseloads for Roe’s lawyers are growing. Attorneys from Roe’s office represent more than 80 percent of federal defendants.
“Their representation is going to be compromised,” said U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, Minnesota’s chief federal judge.
The ax is poised
The sequester cuts will be in place for a decade, unless Congress acts to repeal them. A tax deal at the end of 2012 pared back this year’s cuts. Next year’s are on track to be larger.
Davis said, “That’s where the ax chops off our heads.”
When school starts this fall, more than 500 preschoolers in Minnesota will lose their access to Head Start and 120 employees will lose their jobs with the program designed to give children from low-income families a leg up on kindergarten.
The program already cannot meet the need. In Hennepin County alone, 2,400 children participate in Head Start, but another 1,000 are on waiting lists. Now administrators there are planning to cut at least 14 staff and 90 class slots for children. That makes White uneasy.
“It’s not only for children,” she said. “It affects us a lot as parents.”
The entire country felt the sequestration’s sweep in April, when furloughs of air traffic controllers triggered major flight delays. Complaints spurred Congress to pass a bill that allowed the Department of Transportation to transfer a quarter of a billion dollars to keep airport towers staffed.
Rowan, the head of Metro Meals on Wheels, said cuts to other programs should rile Congress just as much. When fiscal year 2014 begins on Oct. 1, $91 billion in federal spending must be cut, along with $18 billion in mandated cuts in programs such as Medicare.
“The only changes that I can hope for is Congress … making some foxhole budget solutions that don’t balance the budget on the backs of people that can afford it the least,” Rowan said.
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell