Lawmakers say the effects of sequestration are not immediate

WAILEA – Predictions of widespread economic disruptions have yet to come to pass from the mandatory, across-the-board federal spending cuts known as sequestration.

The deficit- and debt-cutting measure enacted in 2011 went into effect March 1. It triggered automatic cuts of $85 billion from a $3.6 trillion federal budget in the seven months from March through September.

Hawaii U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and U.S. Reps. Colleen Hanabusa and Tulsi Gabbard have been among those speaking out against the now 5-month-old sequester. On Saturday while attending the Maui Economic Development Board’s Ke Alahele Education Fund Dinner and Auction at the Grand Wailea, they explained why they believe the fears expressed about the impacts of sequestration were not overblown.

The effects have not made front-page headlines, “but there’s a whole lot going on below the surface,” said Gabbard, who represents rural Oahu and Neighbor Island residents. “There are very key constituencies that are being impacted where we may not see the effects immediately, but we will see later on that these arbitrary cuts will end up costing us more in the long run.”

And, “I believe that by the time it gets to the surface, it’s perhaps too late. A lot of damage is already being done,” Gabbard said.

As an example, the first-term congresswoman said that she talked recently to an Army captain at Schofield Barracks, who told her soldiers are getting two years of training crammed into about 60 days because of sequestration cuts.

And military pilots are not getting as many flying hours as they need to be certified as pilots or for certain missions, Gabbard said.

“Their training is being cut short,” she said.

Schatz maintained that “sequestration is going to be painful, but it is going to be implemented over time and so it’s a little more difficult to decipher what is caused by sequestration and what is not.”

“The overall economy is doing well,” he said. However, “people are struggling because of the sequester.”

Hanabusa, who represents urban Oahu, said that it was known that sequestration “would not be felt immediately.”

And, she said, Democrats who managed the cutting of the budget, including the late Hawaii senior Sen. Daniel Inouye, were able to target unencumbered money and other spending called “outlays” that minimized the public impact of the cuts.

“The impact was negligible in the end,” Hanabusa said.

She said that the effects of sequester are being felt, for example, by federal contractors whose contracts have not been renewed as a result of budget-cutting.

Schatz said those most affected include those who work for the U.S. Department of Defense and people who depend on federally funded programs like Head Start and Meals on Wheels or people who rely on small-business innovation grants.

“Those folks are suffering,” he said. “From a macroeconomic standpoint, it’s not easy to find in the data. But lots of people out there are really feeling the pain of the sequester.”

Gabbard acknowledged that the federal government needs to get its fiscal house in order.

“There’s no question that we do need to make cuts in government,” she said. “There is no question that we do need to take action to deal with the deficit, to deal with the debt, to reform the tax code, to encourage innovation, to grow our economy, to grow the tax base.

“But doing these cuts in an arbitrary manner where you’re taking this across the board, even in places where there should not be cuts, I think is an irresponsible way to govern,” she said.

The gathering of three-fourths of the Hawaii congressional delegation occurred at the Ke Alahele event that drew 630 people and raised $313,254 for MEDB to support and administer educational programs for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) educational initiatives.

Ke Alahele Education Committee Chairman Ryan Churchill said that he has been involved in the program for six years and, during that time, more than $750,000 has been awarded in grants for students and teachers in Maui County.

MEDB also awarded its inaugural Daniel K. Inouye Innovation Award of $10,000 to King Kekaulike High School and two former students, Lotus Chen and Sierra Harrell. As a STEM project, the students focused on safe pedestrian walkways, specifically from Pukalani residential areas to King Kekaulike.

Using global positioning technology, Chen and Harrell produced a geospatial map of their Upcountry neighborhood, showing areas needing sidewalks and crosswalks. Recently, Gov. Neil Abercrombie released nearly $1 million for the capital improvement project, according to MEDB President and Chief Executive Officer Jeanne Skog.

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.