Federal austerity hits home in the West

  • A snowmobiler rides out of Cooke City, Montana, on the northeast boundary of Yellowstone National Park. Park officials announced delays in plowing roads due to the sequester, causing local business owners to worry about a drop in spring visitors.

    Erik Petersen/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

When the Tea Party tide crested in 2010, a number of Western Republicans surfed it into the U.S. House of Representatives. There was Colorado Springs' Rep. Doug Lamborn, who promotes gutting the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, saying it's "low-hanging fruit" that must be picked to shrink the federal deficit. New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce harnessed anti-government momentum to win a tight oilman v. oilman race. Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador, at first a long shot, also triumphed. In January, Pearce and Labrador were among 12 Republicans who voted against John Boehner for speaker of the House. Boehner supported a fiscal cliff deal they believed included too many tax hikes ($600 billion over 10 years), and too few spending cuts ($0).

But the cuts just came later. On March 1, after Congress and the White House failed (again) to agree on a deficit-reducing budget, across-the-board discretionary spending cuts were triggered. The so-called "sequestration" is recognized by even the most conservative of conservatives as bad policy because the cuts are indiscriminate. Still, it is ostensibly a win for them. This time, they got spending cuts ($1.2 trillion over 10 years) without tax increases ($0). On Meet the Press, Labrador said, "Most folks in Idaho are saying that we did the right thing."

So it was surprising to hear Pearce tear into Senate Democrats for failing to increase the U.S. Forest Service's budget post-sequester, saying he was "bewildered" they would ignore wildfire threats by cutting the agency's funding. Or maybe it's not so surprising: New Mexico has recently endured historic wildfires, which are fought with federal money. Lamborn voted against the Budget Control Act in 2011, which mandated sequestration if a deficit deal wasn't reached. Though most economists agree meaningful deficit reduction won't come without slimmer military budgets, he opposed the sequester's potential trims to defense, probably because Lamborn's district is home to three military bases.

These deficit hawks' less than full-throated support of the budget cuts could be read as an implicit acknowledgment that though government largesse is a convenient political punching bag, many Western communities aren't that interested in giving it up.

For proof, liberal pundit David Sirota suggests looking to California. Facing its own budget crisis in 2011, and with Republicans unwilling to support tax increases, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown deeply slashed higher education, health care, welfare, state workers' pay and the criminal justice system. The most painful cuts could be avoided, Brown argued, if voters approved tax increases. He put a temporary tax hike on the rich to fund education before voters last fall, and it passed easily. The political lesson, Sirota says: Government is easy to hate in the abstract, but austerity is tough to stomach in practice.

That's not true everywhere. In 2010, cash-strapped Colorado Springs asked voters to approve taxes to fund streetlights, law enforcement and park maintenance. They wouldn't, and the streets went dark, many public services were privatized, and citizens were invited to "adopt" lights and trash cans. Whether or not privatization actually saved money, many stood by it on principle. Last spring, Councilwoman Jan Martin told This American Life about a man who adopted a streetlight for $300 and thanked her for the program. "I did remind him that for $200 if he had supported the tax initiative, we could have had not only streetlights, but parks and firemen and swimming pools and community centers," Martin said. The man replied that he would never support higher taxes.

But as the birthplace of Colorado's Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) -- a constitutional stranglehold on how much state and local governments can tax and spend -- Colorado Springs is unique in its dogmatic willingness to forgo government services. Many other Coloradans have voted to circumvent TABOR, allowing cities and counties to outspend its limits for schools and roads.

Will the new federal spending cuts cause enough pain in the rural West to seed the sort of pro-tax sentiment that has emerged in California's and Colorado's austerity wakes? Probably not, at least in the short term.

It's too early to tell what the full impact of the cuts will be. But for the most part, they won't be the drastic, sudden shock that Brown's were in California, where universities took a 25 percent budget cut and 70 state parks were threatened with closure. These will be more gradual and cumulative, with agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, Environmental Protection Agency and Bureau of Land Management spending around 5 percent less this year.

That's not to say the cuts won't cause real pain. The states' share of federal mineral royalties will be slashed -- a $53 million blow to Wyoming and $26 million loss for New Mexico between now and July. Counties are being asked to repay money already distributed under the Secure Rural Schools Act. Popular federal beneficiaries, like national parks, will suffer too. The Park Service will hire 10 percent fewer seasonal workers this summer. And these are only the most recent cuts absorbed by agencies. Federal employees have endured salary freezes and heavier workloads for a few years as vacant jobs go unfilled. Sequestration promises more of the same. Public-lands users may notice dirtier bathrooms, disheveled trails, longer lines at park entrances and shuttered campgrounds.

"Funding for national parks in today's dollars was (already) 15 percent below where it was a decade ago," says John Garder of the National Parks Conservation Association. "They have been falling through the cracks as part of a broken process that is not meaningfully addressing the deficit."

Unfortunately, the hardest-hit communities will likely be the neediest. Indian Health Services, a chronically under-funded agency that enjoyed meaningful budget bumps recently thanks to champions like Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, wasn't exempted from the sequester like veterans' and children's health programs were -- an accidental oversight. "But once it's law, you have to pass a whole new law (to change it)," explains Native American journalist Mark Trahant, who is writing a book about fiscal austerity. "In this Congress, that isn't going to happen."

Reservation school districts depend heavily on federal aid in lieu of property tax; Arizona's Window Rock Unified School District may be forced to close schools. Tribal colleges, which provide community services like buses, libraries and Native language education, may eliminate summer school, GED programs, and cut staff pay and healthcare, says Carrie Billy, who heads the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. Such cuts represent a breach of trust, she says. "The only tribal colleges that receive federal funds are colleges chartered by federally recognized tribes. They signed binding treaties with the federal government to fund education. They didn't just say 'when we have the money available.' And our little pot is still being cut."

D H Shaver
D H Shaver Subscriber
Apr 17, 2013 09:29 AM
We are a very long way from "small government". The obvious challenge is that each voter generally wants to 1) pay lower taxes, 2) spend someone else's money on "high priority" projects. Only in Washington would a reduction in future spending be called a "cut".

The complexity of the numbers, past commitments, and mixed desires is just huge. A nice primer on the scope of the challenge: http://s3.amazonaws.com/kpcbweb/files/USA_Inc.pdf Here is the 2012 update: http://www.kpcb.com/insights/2012-usa-inc-key-points
Malcolm McMichael
Malcolm McMichael
Apr 17, 2013 11:44 AM
There is an austerity mystery at the US Forest Service. The Forest Service budget is $5.5 billion. Of that, only $300 million is allocated to trails & campgrounds, and $600 Billion is allocated to wildfire - in other words, about 16% of the total budget is allocated to the marquee services we typically associate with the Forest Service (plus a few hundred million for total system maintenance and capital).

Yet when budget cuts are threatened, the USFS holds a gun at the puppy's head and claims they have no choice but to slash recreation and firefighting. So... where does the other $4.6 billion of their budget get spent?
Michael Kirkpatrick
Michael Kirkpatrick Subscriber
Apr 17, 2013 11:05 PM
I'm guessing staffing is a big part of the overhead and budget. I don't know if that qualifies as a "mystery". The FS does a lot more than just run campgrounds and put out fires. Preventing fires, via logging, is a substantial outlay, as well as famously unprofitable. Fighting fires consumes much more than 1/10 of the FS budget. In 2010, it was 50%, and in the next 10-15 years it's projected to consume the entire budget. Firefighting is the FS's equivalent of the military and much of the entitlement programs added in.
Malcolm McMichael
Malcolm McMichael
Apr 19, 2013 01:48 PM
I would assume in fact that wages are already allocated into those program line items, along with an allocated share of overhead such as for the offices not in the field (like Washington). In fact, the danger in this case is that overhead bloat is hidden in the allocations.

But yes, the forest service does have overhead, and yes it does do many other programs, including logging (and road-building for logging), biology, and forest products research, among many other things. They spend nearly a billion dollars on "land management and restoration"; maybe that's great, or maybe it is the public cleaning up after logging, mining, and other land abuses.

My point is, when the USFS is called on by Congress to cut its budget, it threatens to slash firefighting and campground services. It does not threaten to reduce the number of biologists studying stuff, to reduce the roads it builds for loggers, or to eliminate its programs for looking for new commercial uses for old forest plants. When it comes to cuts, it is as if the only part of the budget that exists is that part of the budget iceberg that we can see above the surface - trails, campgrounds and firefighting.

It is in my view an understandable political ploy. Yet, it begs the question: why not talk about all those costs in the iceberg that we can't see?

As for the wildfire figure I used, I probably should have been more specific. I was including only the budget for fire "suppression". I excluded "preparedness" and other management ($1.36 billion), as well as the "suppression reserve" fund (essentially a savings account of $315 million). Taken together, all these elements indeed approach 50% of the budget (depending on how you slice it - the budget gets pretty complex when factoring in mandatory programs and revenues). Even then, firefighting, fire preparedness, and recreation is only half of the USFS budget; what's in the rest? And why aren’t they cutting those support and research programs instead of cutting firefighting and recreation?

I did not exclude the fie preparedness items for any particular reason, except to my mind the "preparedness" budget is indeed a mystery. At least at first glance. The FS spends more preparing for than they do fighting fire. And that sort of budget line item can be a prime dumping ground to hide programs that are only indirectly related to fire-fighting - like subsidizing logging and dealing with beetle kill - or perhaps the costs of preparedness are more related to protecting urban interface private property owners from fire, which is an expenditure that deserves some philosophical scrutiny. Why don't they threaten to stop doing that; stop subsidizing private homeowners that remove fire hazards on their own property?

Again, according to the USFS's own figures, they spend 16% of tier budget on fire suppression and trails/campgrounds/wilderness.

My figures come from the USFS published budget. Found here: http://www.fs.fed.us/aboutus/budget/ . See page 30 (B-1) for a summary table.
Howard Johnson
Howard Johnson Subscriber
Apr 20, 2013 05:10 PM
Someone, please, please, tell me why the Department of Defense(Offense) is not being reduced in size? And why have a Department of Homeland Security? Isn't that the function of the National Guard?
Patrick Hunter
Patrick Hunter
May 19, 2013 09:42 AM
Most government spending cuts, at any level and in any department will mean people loosing their jobs. Those people's spending, from their paychecks, is income to everyone else. This also means more people will be looking for jobs that don't exist. This drives down everyone's wages as employers can offer less. This is a downward spiral. The economy tanks.
The current propaganda coming out of the billionaire funded think tanks is that "government is too big". The main benefit from "smaller" government is that tax revenues can be reduced. So, the reason billionaires put millions into think tanks, right wing politicians and "tea party" groups is to lower their tax bills. They save hundreds of millions. It is a great return on investment.
How's that cat food tasting?