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Sequestration disaster looming

 

It’s feeling a lot like summer lately, even though it’s only spring in the Bitterroot and I haven’t planted my tomatoes yet. Things are drying out fast, temps are rising, and the fires have already started. Not a good sign for our summer fire season.

There’s also a monster lurking, smoldering; a cancerous ground fire that’s creeping into our lives that’s sure to blow up as summer progresses: I’m talking about the sequester.

Sequestration is the across-the-board federal budget cuts that are now underway, affecting everything you can imagine, from Meals on Wheels, national defense, Head Start, financial aid for low income Montana students, teachers, air traffic control/security, natural resource agencies like the US Forest Service, BLM, National Park Service, disabled youngsters, on and on.

The sequester was never supposed to happen. It was hatched by President Obama to force Democrats and Republicans to compromise on a budget-cutting deal. For Republicans the poison pill was large defense cuts; for Democrats, many cuts in programs they cherish, like education, research, senior services. It was concocted to be so bad that both political parties would have to strike a deal. Alas, no deal, for Republicans would not allow a red cent in tax increases, not for corporate jets, not for big oil, not for Bill Gates, not for unpatriotic US corporations which stockpile $100,000,000,000s overseas to avoid taxes. You may think at first blush that both parties are equally to blame. But as Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein (who works for the American Enterprise Institute–no liberal think tank) detail in their non-partisan book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” it’s the Republicans who are the cause of Washington’s gridlock, dysfunction, and the “my way or the highway” uncompromising attitude. And so it was that budget fairness died and once again the wealthiest and most powerful corporations are the winners; while we middle class and lower income folks hold the bag and will get to hold our garden hoses come mid-summer to put out the fires that will surely come.

Thanks to indiscriminate, zombie-like sequester cuts, firefighting capability this summer (and for years to come) will be significantly weakened, with 500 fewer firefighters and much less machinery. Our federal wildland fire program will be cut by $115 million this year. As the US Forest Service “burns” its way through its fire fighting/suppression budget, it’ll have to reach into its hazardous-fuels-reduction funds, leading to fewer projects on our Forests (like here on the Bitterroot) to increase fire safety in the community protection zone, or wildland urban interface. Keep in mind that predictions for summer wildland fire potential in Western Montana are above normal. The 12 hottest years on record have occurred in the last 15 years due to man-made climate change. What will this summer bring? And what effect will sequestration have on our safety and quality of life?

On the other hand, fiscal conservatives/austerians, tea partiers, and Republicans in general are all very satisfied with the cuts. They’re finally getting what they want–smaller government in spades. Fewer seniors are getting Meals on Wheels, kids are being dropped from Head Start, those pesky liberal institutions of higher learning will see fewer low income students to brainwash; fewer teachers, fewer conservation grants, etc. etc.

Republicans (and Democrats) did spring into action when one of the sequester cuts, FAA air traffic controller furloughs, did cause them (and politically well-connected business travelers) some heartburn with delayed or cancelled flights. That’s par for the course.

Our county commissioners lament over $10,000s of sequester cuts in local “subsidies” in the form of federal payments in two programs that Ravalli County heavily relies on: Secure Rural Schools (SRS) and Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT). These federal payments are being cut, just like other federal programs. It’s the law now and will be for the next 10 years, so we all get to reap what the “Just say No!” Congressional Republicans have sown. The sequester cuts, by their very nature, started slow and will intensify as the year progresses. Our President and Democrats are still willing to come to the table to replace the zombie cuts with a smarter, more balanced plan that doesn’t harm economic growth nor puts us here in the Bitterroot under such fire risk.

Would it really be unfair to eliminate corporate jet tax loopholes and big oil subsidies? Is it unfair to ask President Obama, Mitt Romney, and Warren Buffet to pay the same tax rate as their chauffeur or secretary? If Republicans agreed to just some of this, the sequester disappears and Ravalli County gets their federal payments in full, geriatric Mary Smith gets her Meals on Wheels again, and we Bitterrooters get a more fully functional and capable firefighting apparatus to battle this summer’s probable infernos-to-come.

Van P. Keele
Hamilton

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