The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 1, 2013

As automatic federal cuts kick in, there's still much unknown

By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — The doomsday alarms have been sounding in Washington, D.C., and they prompted numerous  media stories about the far-reaching ramification of $85 billion in federal spending cuts starting today.

The response from area officials dependent on grants, reimbursements and subsidies from the federal government were much more restrained. People generally are uncertain, concerned and reluctant to comment.

John Woodwick, executive director of the Minnesota Valley Action Council, was visiting members of Congress recently and said the message he heard from others talking to lawmakers was remarkably consistent — whether they were government officials, nonprofits such as MVAC or business owners.

“I heard the same thing, over and over again: We just need to know so we can move forward and make plans,” Woodwick said. “Not knowing is frustrating for everybody.”

One thing that seems increasingly clear is that nothing dramatic is coming in the next few days as a result of the automatic spending cuts that resulted from the failure of Congress and the White House to agree to a comprehensive budget deficit-reduction deal.

 More dramatic reductions in government services would come intermittently in the weeks and months ahead.

“Not quite 70 percent of our money comes from the federal level, so it impacts a lot of areas,” Woodwick said of MVAC, which provides workforce development programs, housing assistance, heating fuel help, home weatherization, Head Start services for preschool children and more.

The sequestration — across-the-board cuts to all federal programs other than a few untouchables such as Medicare and Social Security — could be replaced with more targeted cuts and revenue increases if President Obama and congressional Republicans reach a compromise in the weeks ahead.

Otherwise, furloughs of federal workers — most often one day a week through the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year — are expected. In most cases, those won’t begin for a month or more, so workers can receive required notification. Layoffs also are likely in other programs dependent on federal money, although the timing is varied and uncertain — probably not occurring until the next school year for K-12 programs.

As for Head Start, about 700 fewer children statewide would eventually lose a slot in the program if the sequestration is fully implemented, according to estimates. That translates to 26 of the 560 slots in south-central Minnesota, Woodwick said.

Should Head Start parents be worried that their kids might lose their slots sometime soon?

“There is no assurance, I guess,” he said. “If the federal government holds all of this (funding) at bay, there’s nothing we can tell them other than ‘We don’t know.’”

The Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program, commonly called WIC, has been mentioned in media stories as one potential victim of the sequestration. Kelley Haeder, who oversees the local program as Blue Earth County’s community health supervisor, said she’s been given no indication that a reduction in services is imminent.

“As of today, it’s business as usual. So there’s no impact to WIC services at this time,” Haeder said.

The program, which provides services for 1,200 to 1,400 participants each month, has its full budget allocation through March.

“We want people to continue to come in, continue to apply,” she said. “We’re going to continue to provide services.”

The Meals on Wheels program for the elderly also has been repeatedly mentioned as a potential victim of sequestration cuts.

A regional supervisor for Lutheran Social Service, which runs the meal program in this area, referred questions to the organization’s state director of senior programs, who suggested the CEO of LSS might have a better handle.

Reimbursements paid to hospitals and doctors for Medicare recipients are to be cut by 2 percent. Asked about the potential fiscal impact on Mankato’s hospital, a spokesman declined to comment on the record.

An administrator at the federal prison in Waseca referred questions to the federal Bureau of Prisons, which said all sequestration questions were being handled by the Department of Justice.