Owens: Sequester will affect everyone

U.S. Rep. Bill Owens says an $85 billion reduction in federal spending will likely go into effect at midnight today. Those cuts will have a broad impact on the North Country, he said, especially at the Fort Drum Army base near Watertown, the U.S.-Canada border and the Federal Correctional Institution in Ray Brook.

During a teleconference with the press, Owens, a Democrat from Plattsburgh, said President Barack Obama will meet with House and Senate leaders today to talk about a deal to avoid sequestration – automatic spending cuts required by 2011’s Budget Control Act that weren’t addressed by a Jan. 2 measure to raise the debt ceiling and avoid the so-called fiscal cliff. Owens voted for both of those measures, along with a large bipartisan contingent from the House.

Owens, who represents New York’s vast 21st Congressional District, said there has been “no significant conversation at this juncture in terms of how to deal with this issue.

“I’ve been saying all along, I think there are any number of ways we can proceed,” he said. “We have the General Accountability (Office) report. We have the ability to allow Medicare to negotiate its drug purchases. We have the ability to implement portions of the (Affordable Care Act) for Medicare population for preventive care purposes.

“If you sort of look at all of those, that’s probably a number between $75 (billion) and $100 billion. If you add that to the fiscal cliff legislation that we passed … you’d be well above the $120 billion” required to avoid automatic cuts, Owens said.

Owens said he’d prefer a larger deal. He said Congress needs to look at a long-term plan to cut spending rather than the short-term deals that have been passed in recent months, that have mainly focused on letting tax cuts expire for the wealthy.

Nevertheless, a deal to avoid sequestration doesn’t sound likely, Owens said. So what will happen when the clock strikes midnight?

Owens said the cuts will take 30 to 60 days to “play out.” He said federal agencies will need to decide how to implement the cuts, which could come in the form of worker furloughs.

“Many civilian employees clearly will be negatively impacted, and that includes people at (FCI) Ray Brook, along the border, at Fort Drum – all of those folks will be adversely impacted,” Owens said. “This is going to be very broad sweeping. How it exactly plays out is a little less clear.

“We’re going to be in a position where it will touch everyone to a greater or less degree, and it’s because we have not come forward with some kind of rational discussion about how to solve the problem.”

Locally, employees at FCI Ray Brook could receive furlough notices, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Sequestration would result in a $338 million loss for the federal Bureau of Prisons, according to a DOJ statement emailed to the Enterprise by press secretary Adora Andy.

“The Justice Department is acutely concerned about staff and inmate safety should sequestration occur,” the statement said.

The Enterprise couldn’t determine how sequestration would impact FCI Ray Brook in particular, as officials there directed all questions to the federal government.

The statement notes that the federal inmate population would remain at nearly 218,000, despite the budget cuts.

“All of BOP’s staff would be subject to possible furlough should cuts of the sequestration’s magnitude hit BOP,” the statement said. “To the extent possible, BOP will schedule the potential furloughs to minimize the disruption within the prison facilities and will always maintain a minimum level of staff for security purposes.

“Prison operations will be affected, however, and intermittent partial or full lock-downs may be required. BOP will need to curtail inmate programs such as drug treatment and vocational education, which would lead to higher costs to taxpayers and communities in the long run as the lack of such inmate re-entry training makes it less likely that released inmates will be successful at reintegration into society upon their release. While the Justice Department is considering what steps can be taken to aid BOP, none of the Department’s actions can mitigate the severity of every cut faced by BOP.”

North Country hospitals face a 2 to 3 percent cut, Owens said.

“I’ve received information from Adirondack Medical Center, from Elizabethtown Community Hospital, from CVPH, that they are going to be negatively impacted by this,” he said. “For many of the hospitals who have very, very slim margins, if not negative margins, this is just another problem for these communities.”

Saranac Lake’s burgeoning biotech industry, which includes Trudeau Institute, could also feel some pain, Owens said, as organizations like Trudeau that rely on funding from the National Institute of Health will likely see less federal funding.

Elsewhere, Owens said it’s tough to gauge how individual taxpayers will be affected. At Fort Drum, he said civilian workers face a roughly 20 percent furlough rate.

“If their pay is reduced by 20 percent, that’s very significant,” Owens said. “It will also roll out into the local economy. People will not buy cars, will not go out to dinner. That will be a very significant impact.”

Owens said he thinks some members of Congress don’t believe sequestration will have the negative impact the president and others have claimed it will. That’s one reason why there hasn’t been a sense of urgency to get a deal done, he said.

“So as this rolls out 30 or 45 days, if in fact the impact is as substantial, then I think those folks will be pressured by their constituents to take action,” Owens said. “I think it’s going to take engagement from the public to move the leadership along.”