As the country draws closer to the March 1 deadline for Congress and the White House to agree on the federal budget, the looming "sequestration" seems more and more likely.
Bundled into a term that essentially means "separation," the $1.2 trillion in federal spending cuts would come over 10 years. The cuts would be automatically implemented if no budget deal is reached.
Much has been said about how the sweeping cuts might affect federal employees and programs, from education to the military. However, most local government agency officials in the region are still wondering exactly what the sequester might mean for them.
The only certainty, it seems, is that nothing much will change on March 2 if no deal is reached.
Winona County Administrator Duane Hebert said he is still waiting to hear about which county programs might be impacted by the sequestration. The only official notice the county has received has been in reference to some of the county's grants from the Department of Justice, such as the newly-implemented Drug Court and possibly the Restorative Justice program. The notice did not indicate what level of cuts might be on the horizon for the grant programs, and Hebert said the programs would continue, although a lengthy sequestration period might mean programs could be scaled back.
Food assistance (often called "food stamps") could see a hit, said Hebert, as could Women Infants and Children (WIC), although, like many of the potentially affected programs, it is unclear what that might mean for recipients.
According to information released from the White House this week, sequestration in 2013 would cut $7 million in federal school funding for Minnesota, along with $9.2 million in funds for school employees who work with students with disabilities.
Winona Area Public Schools Superintendent Scott Hannon said sequestration would simply mean less in reimbursement payments for certain school programming—mainly in funding for special education staff members. If the sequestration is in effect for the rest of the year, it could mean about $125,000 less for the district, he said. That will not necessarily mean layoffs, added Hannon, but the money has to come from somewhere. "If it's out of our general fund, then it's like, 'well, geeze, that's some more money [to cut from the budget],'" he said. "We have to look at either taking that out of our reserves or saying 'We have to reduce that.' It doesn't seem like a huge amount, but on the other hand, it's $125,000. It's very meaningful for students."
Mike Haney of the Minnesota Workforce Center in Winona said his office is also still working out how sequestration could affect his office. About $600,000 in cuts would be spread across 16 workforce centers in the state, he explained. While his office has instituted a hiring freeze in anticipation of the cuts, he said the reduction might mean that some people would not be able to receive job training to help get them back into the work force. "We're still open for business," he said.
In order to place a federal worker on a furlough in response to the sequestration, 30 days' notice is required, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Assistant Regional Director for External Affairs Chuck Traxler explained. "So it's not like on March 2, boom, everything's going to hit," he said. While the Winona office could see some cuts, it would likely be weeks into the sequestration before final decisions about funding reductions—and effects—are known.
The U.S. Corps of Engineers Fountain City base is still alive with workers in winter months, with its machine shop running to service equipment, and employees busy with maintenance work on regional locks and dams. Corps spokesperson George Stringham echoed the sentiment of many waiting to find out what the sequester will impact. "We are sitting and waiting like so many other folks," he said. "Whatever happens, we'll push through."