Proposed Cuts Will Sting Many in Northeastern PA

By Michael Sisak

February 24. 2013

U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright doesn’t want to be home just now. Not this week. Not with the second fiscal crisis of his first two months threatening the livelihoods of thousands of his constituents, from the machinists at the Tobyhanna Army Depot to the toddlers enrolled in the Luzerne County Head Start program.

Cartwright, the freshman Democrat from Moosic, would rather be back in Washington, D.C., working on a solution to prevent the cuts – $85 billion, including $173.5 million in labor, education and health funding for Pennsylvania – from taking effect next Friday.

If only his colleagues were so dedicated. Instead, mere hours after Cartwright led the House of Representatives in the “Pledge of Allegiance” on Feb. 15, the chamber adjourned for what he called an “outrageous” 10-day vacation. The curiously timed break left the potential cuts unresolved, federal jobs and programs in limbo, and Cartwright on edge.

“We should be down in Washington with our sleeves rolled up, working to find a solution, working on a way to remove and replace these blind cuts,” Cartwright said in a telephone interview last Friday. “It’s like we’re flying a plane that’s going down and we took a break to watch the in-flight movie.”

Without an alterative – without Denzel Washington’s Whip Whitaker or the real-life Chesley Sullenberger suddenly taking the controls – the fiscal plane will continue to free fall toward so-called sequestration, imperiling nearly ever facet of life for millions of Americans, including hundreds of thousands of Northeastern Pennsylvanians.

Cuts at the Tobyhanna Army Depot, where funding could be slashed by more than $300 million, would have a dramatic ripple effect on the region, which became a hub of government operations after the coal mining and textile manufacturing industries waned. The facility employs 5,400 people, including 1,323 from Luzerne County, generates an annual economic impact of $4.4 billion and is credited with supporting 16,800 additional jobs in the region, according to government statistics. The impact of “substantial” furloughs at the facility, which are scheduled to begin April 26 if the cuts take effect, could be devastating, Cartwright said.

“This is a region that transitioned out of a coal-mining based economy, very much as a product of the efforts of United States congressmen, people like Joe McDade and Dan Flood,” Cartwright said. “They brought a lot of federal jobs and defense jobs to our area. In that way, we are particularly vulnerable to something like this sequester.”

The federal footprint in Northeastern Pennsylvania extends well beyond Tobyhanna, to the Social Security Data Operations Center in Plains Township, which will likely be impacted by the budget cuts, and the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Plains Township, which will not.

Attempting to gauge the impact of the cuts on the Social Security facility, which employs more than 200 people, exposed another flaw in the federal government: red tape. A regional spokesman for the Social Security Administration in Scranton directed questions about the impending budget cuts to a regional communications officer, who in turn directed the inquiry to the White House Office of Management and Budget. That office responded to specific questions about the Plains Township facility with links to generic fact sheets, guidebooks and public statements from officials on the impact of the cuts nationwide. That material indicated only that some Social Security facilities would be forced to close or operate on reduced schedules.

Vince Riccardo, a spokesman for the Veterans Affairs facility, was more forthcoming. The Office of Management and Budget, he said, has exempted the medical center and others like it across the country from the cuts, giving a degree of “good news for our patients and our veterans.”

The cuts, designed as a mechanism to rein in federal spending, would be bad news for children and low-income families, school and community development officials said.

Cuts to education programs – projected to be more than $100 million in Pennsylvania alone – would force public school districts in Luzerne County and elsewhere to find alternate sources of funding for supplemental instruction and special education services. The cuts, Wyoming Valley West superintendent Chuck Suppon said, are “certainly is going to hurt.”

Sen. Tom Harkin, in a report last summer on the impact of sequestration on nondefense jobs and services, estimated the education cuts in Pennsylvania would cost 594 education jobs and lead to 136 fewer schools receiving grant funds. All told, according to the report, 45,781 fewer students would be served by federally funded programs due to the cuts.

Cuts to federal community development funding – potentially by 8 to 10 percent – could hinder road improvements, playground projects and housing for low-income families, Andrew D. Reilly, the executive director of the Luzerne County Office of Community Development, said. Those cuts, Reilly said, would also limit funding for programs operated by local nonprofit organizations, including the Commission on Economic Opportunity, domestic violence services and homeless shelters.

“There’s really a drive out there to slash spending at the federal level and many of the representatives and senators see this as a domestic program that they can cut,” Reilly said. “But a lot of these communities rely on this money.”

Luzerne County Head Start, the early childhood development program serving 925 children from birth to age 5, would face a 5.2 percent funding drop if the scheduled cuts take effect. That would have devastating consequences, Cartwright said, including the forced elimination of preschool and home visits.

The looming cuts were originally scheduled to take effect in January, but the Congressional leadership reached a last-minute deal to postpone the deadline by two months. Another temporary fix is possible, Cartwright said, but the panic and economic uncertainty will persist until “the partisan, toxic atmosphere in Washington” subsides and a long-term solution takes hold.

“They keep kicking the can down the road three or four months. That’s a crying shame,” Cartwright said. “The people need Congress to come together and come up with a budget so that they can plan to hire people or purchase capital improvements for their businesses. Until they have some semblance of certainty for their future, business owners are hamstrung and find it impossible to make long-term plans.”