Sequester only a warm-up for what could happen next

Unless something in Washington changes soon, our country is about to suffer a needless and self-inflicted wound to our economy.

And unless something changes in Augusta, we might be headed for an even worse debacle this summer in Maine.

On Friday, across-the-board spending cuts in federal spending will kick in. And soon after, Mainers will start to feel the sting.

The cuts are called a “sequester.”

It’s bureaucratic gobbledegook for automatic, stupid federal cuts that were designed to be so bad – so onerous in their impacts – that they would force the U.S. Congress to adopt alternatives.

But instead of serving their agreed upon goal – to force a compromise – many Republicans in Congress have decided that the across the board cuts to domestic and defense spending are tolerable, even preferable to other alternatives.

Even if you blindly reject Keynsian economics and think that the federal budget must be reduced, the sequester is a bad way to go about it. It’s inflexible; it’s applied across the board to non-controversial and lightening-rod programs alike; and it barely makes a dent in the overall size of government. (No programs are ended. They’re just cut back).

Earlier this week, the White House put out state-specific reports about how the $85 billion in cuts would translate on the ground in every state. For states like Virginia and Utah, which are dependent upon the government in ways that are contradictory to the anti-Washington, anti-spending conservative ideology of their governors, the impact will be particularly hard felt.

But Maine also faces serious and dangerous consequences.

The sequester pulls $2.7 million in funding for K-12 education and an additional $2.6 million to serve children with disabilities.

About 740 fewer children will receive vaccines for diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus and flu. Dollar for dollar, there is no better public health investment than immunization for kids. It pays for itself in spades with a lifetime of improved health.

Nutrition assistance for seniors, services for the victims of domestic violence, child care, law enforcement and programs to fight infectious disease and respond to natural disasters will all be cut.

And then there’s the Maine National Guard.

On Monday, Gov. Paul LePage issued a press release saying that the sequester puts National Guard readiness at risk and could include furloughs of 600 civilian employees of the U.S. Department of Defense in Maine.

“These cuts will degrade readiness, the safety of Maine’s citizens and hurt Maine’s economy,” LePage said.

While the governor was talking specifically about the National Guard cuts, his comment is also true for many of the other cuts that sequester demands.

“I urge the president and Congress to find smarter, bipartisan ways to cut spending,” LePage continued.

The sequester is bad public policy, and its bad politics, but it’s just the warm-up act for something that could be even more disastrous for Maine.

Soon after passing a supplemental state budget with strong bipartisan numbers, Maine House Republican leader Ken Fredette of Newport dropped a bombshell during a joint appearance with Democratic Speaker of the House Mark Eves.

During the appearance on WCSH-6 with Pat Callaghan last Friday, Fredette said that there is “going to be a real battle on the biennial budget, and quite frankly a government shutdown is something that’s possible.”

There’s no question that negotiations over the next budget will be difficult. There are significant policy differences between Republican and Democrats, but negotiations haven’t even begun, and already one party – the one that holds the Blaine House – is talking shutdown.

If you believe that government is only the source of problems, then perhaps the prospects of a shutdown don’t worry you – in the same way that the sequester doesn’t seem to worry Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But in the real world, where government is an important contributor to the economy, the personal and substantial impacts of a government shutdown would be severe and would ripple throughout the economy.

A shutdown would touch every person in the state. Millions of dollars would be needlessly sucked out of the economy. State parks would be closed, public health and safety would be put at risk, veteran services compromised, contractors would go unpaid. Children, the elderly and people with disabilities would be left in the lurch.

No thinking person could accept such consequences.

Writing about the sequester for Bloomberg News, Caroline Baum said: “What’s striking and depressing … is the leaders’ singular focus on their own self-interest above that of the nation.”

By swallowing hard and supporting terrible budgets for the last three years, Maine Democrats have shown they are willing to compromise to make sure the state meets its obligations.

We can only hope that despite his comments, Fredette has the same willingness.

Otherwise, the sequester that is likely to start on Friday is only an appetizer for a main course of misery to come.