Washington gridlock, sequester frustrate governors

WASHINGTON — The nation’s governors had a message Saturday for Americans frustrated that Washington’s persistent partisan gridlock appears likely to trigger an across-the-board budget cut March 1 that could delay airline travel and result in hundreds of thousands of layoffs: They’re frustrated too.

Meeting in Washington for the winter meeting of the National Governors Association, state chief executives from both parties expressed deepening concern about the mindlessness of the $85 billion budget cut, which will be split between military and domestic programs but will otherwise offer an equal whack to every affected government program. They asked to be allowed more discretion in how spending cuts are implemented.

It’s the result of Congress’s failure to agree on a more targeted deficit reduction package. Congress will return to work Monday after a week-long recess, but despite political posturing, there’s been no sign of serious negotiations between the parties to prevent the cut from hitting on schedule Friday.

Republican governors Saturday stressed that they are on board with reductions in federal spending even if they could result in further cuts to already stressed state budgets. But many slammed the across-the-board hack as a silly way to go about deficit reduction.

In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, said he fears what Washington has dubbed “sequestration” could result in delays to toxic-waste cleanup at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

“Every line item gets cut, regardless of what it is,” he said. “This is not a smart way to do government.”

In Hawaii, 19,000 workers at the naval station at Pearl Harbor could face furloughs, which Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, said would undermine military preparedness.

Abercrombie said Pearl Harbor, where a surprise Japanese attack in 1941 propelled the United States into World War II, is a place that “everybody can understand symbolizes … what happens when you’re not prepared.”

Governors in both parties said they worried that the latest of a series of Washington budget crisis moments could inject new uncertainty into state economies that had only just begun to fully stabilize after the end of the recession.

“We’re talking about real lives. We’re talking about families. We’re talking about their pocketbooks,” said Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, Republican, the association’s vice-chairman. “It is not good to have the sequester talk every couple of months.”

After attending weekend sessions on tax reform, cybersecurity and coping with extreme weather, the bipartisan group of governors will meet with President Obama on Monday, with the looming budget ax probably being a central topic of discussion.

Democratic governors also met separately with Obama on Friday and emerged from the White House to blame Republicans for cuts they said would hit police, firefighters, teachers and National Guard units.

Although the governors, on a bipartisan basis, Saturday pressed Congress and Obama to come up with a more surgical plan than sequestration, they offered no joint solution to the central issue dividing Washington: Whether more tax revenue should be used alongside additional spending cuts.

Democrats agreed with the president that a balanced plan should include both — and blamed the imminent cut on the GOP’s unwillingness to consider higher taxes in a plan to avert them.

“It seems like every three months, the House Republicans find another way to fell a tree in the path of our economic recovery,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat. He warned of particular damage to the Washington-area economy.

Republicans, however, agreed with their congressional counterparts that higher taxes would hurt the economy and the across-the-board cut should be replaced with other spending cuts. Many stressed their desire to see the federal government shrink in other ways, pointing to their own experiences balancing state budgets.

“I’m just worried about the federal government really destroying the economy of this country by continuing to spend more than they take in and not making the tough decisions,” said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican. “And the president has provided no leadership. He’s not really brought people together.”

Some noted that the Republican-held House twice last year passed bills that would have spared military spending by shifting defense cuts onto other domestic programs. Democrats rejected that approach as hitting the social safety net too hard.

This week, the Senate will consider a Democratic alternative that would replace the sequester with cuts to agriculture subsidies and higher taxes on those making more than $1 million a year. That measure is unlikely to survive a filibuster.

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