White House lists budget cuts but Nebraska effects remain unclear

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February 25, 2013 - 5:30pm

The White House says pending sequestration of federal funds would hurt everything from schools to air force operations in Nebraska. But details are scarce, and state officials say they aren’t clear on what will happen.

The list put out by the White House reads like a roll call of negative consequences: Teachers’ and aides’ jobs would be at risk. There would be fewer work-study jobs for low income college students. Cuts would fall on environmental programs, the military, law enforcement, and job search programs. Some disadvantaged children would lose access to child care and vaccines. And there would be cuts in public health, domestic violence programs, and meals for seniors.

But when it comes to specifics, it gets a little vague. For example, the White House says funding for Air Force operations in Nebraska will be cut by about $15 million. But what will that mean? Ryan Hansen, spokesman for the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force base in Bellevue, home of the Strategic Command, said the Wing is still waiting for guidance from on some decisions. "We aren’t sure exactly how the local missions will be impacted here, and to what extent, beyond March 1 if sequestration goes through," Hansen said.

On a White House-sponsored conference call, Jason Furman, principal deputy director of the National Economic Council, was asked if the Air Force cuts in Nebraska would mean grounding planes, for example. " I don’t have the exact answer on that particular question. But certainly in defense, we’ve seen a whole range of things, from ships not deploying to fewer flights being undertaken and just sort of the whole range of ways you’d imagine," he said.

"Often, it will be up to particular decisions by the Department of Defense what to do. But whatever it does, (it) will have to cut that funding for Air Force operations in Nebraska by that $15 million and that’ll have consequences for those types of things," Furman added.

The White House list also said funding for vaccinations would be cut $52,000, which would mean about 760 fewer Nebraska children would receive vaccines. Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Kathie Osterman says that agency has received no notification of the cuts from the federal government. She said last fiscal year, the department received 414,000 doses of vaccines, worth about $20 million, from the federal government.

The White House also says Nebraska would lose almost $3 million in federal funding for primary and secondary education, putting 40 teacher and aide jobs at risk, serving about 5,000 fewer students and about 20 fewer schools.

Education Commissioner Roger Breed said he thinks those figures apply to the so-called Title One program, which funds remedial math and reading programs for children from low-income families. Breed says if the cuts go into effect, they will affect different districts differently. But because they come in the middle of a fiscal year, he said, there will be some commonalities.

"Since this has to go into effect right now, then school districts can’t mess with the contracts with teachers, generally. They’re obligated to pay that, the teacher’s obligated to work the school year," Breed said. "So you’re down to noncertified personnel – teacher assistants who are hourly employees, at-will employees, so they could be terminated."

Breed was asked if that means a teacher who was working with Johnnie would now be asked to also work with Sallie, who is currently being helped by a teacher’s aide. "Right. Or if the teacher is dealing with five Johnnies, the teacher assistant might be dealing with three Sallies. That’s more likely the number," he replied.

Breed said it’s not clear which pots of federal money will be cut: funds left over from last year, funds for the current fiscal year, or those for next year.

The discussion of cuts comes as the White House tries to pressure congressional Republicans to avoid them by agreeing to a deal that would collect more taxes from upper income people and businesses.

Republicans say the worst effects can be avoided by giving agency heads more flexibility in what to cut, and point out White House officials were the ones who first suggested sequestration, in 2011.

Sequestration is scheduled to begin Friday if Congress does not act before then.

In the Legislature Monday, a bill aimed at limiting how much government agencies can charge for public record requests got first round approval. The measure would specify the government could not charge for the first six hours of staff time required to comply with requests.

Following objections by some local government officials, Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery said he has agreed to reduce that exemption to the first four hours, when the bill comes back for a second round of debate.

Editor’s Note: Breed is a member of the Nebraska Educational Telecommunications Commission, which oversees NET.

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