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Fear of US Cuts Grows in States Where Aid Flows
(Photo: C. Elle / Flickr)

Fear of US Cuts Grows in States Where Aid Flows

(Photo: C. Elle / Flickr)

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States are increasingly alarmed that they could become collateral damage in Washington’s latest fiscal battle, fearing that the impasse could saddle them with across-the-board spending cuts that threaten to slow their fragile recoveries or thrust them back into recession.

Some states, like Maryland and Virginia, are vulnerable because their economies are heavily dependent on federal workers, federal contracts and military spending, which will face steep reductions if Congress allows the automatic cuts, known as sequestration, to begin next Friday. Others, including Illinois and South Dakota, are at risk because of their reliance on the types of federal grants that are scheduled to be cut. And many states simply fear that a heavy dose of federal austerity could weaken their economies, costing them jobs and much-needed tax revenue.

So as state officials begin to draw up their budgets for next year, some say that the biggest risk they see is not the weak housing market or the troubled European economy but the federal government. While the threat of big federal cuts to states has become something of a semiannual occurrence in recent years, state officials said in interviews that they fear that this time the federal government might not be crying wolf — and their hopes are dimming that a deal will be struck in Washington in time to avert the cuts.

The impact would be widespread as the cuts ripple across the nation over the next year.

Texas expects to see its education aid slashed hundreds of millions of dollars, which could force local school districts to fire teachers, if the cuts are not averted. Michigan officials say they are in no position to replace the lost federal dollars with state dollars, but worry about cuts to federal programs like the one that helps people heat their homes. Maryland is bracing not only for a blow to its economy, which depends on federal workers and contractors and the many private businesses that support them, but also for cuts in federal aid for schools, Head Start programs, a nutrition program for pregnant women, mothers and children, and job training programs, among others.

Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, a Republican, warned in a letter to President Obama on Monday that the automatic spending cuts would have a “potentially devastating impact” and could force Virginia and other states into a recession, noting that the planned cuts to military spending would be especially damaging to areas like Hampton Roads that have a big Navy presence. And he noted that the whole idea of the proposed cuts was that they were supposed to be so unpalatable that they would force officials in Washington to come up with a compromise.

“As we all know, the defense, and other, cuts in the sequester were designed to be a hammer, not a real policy,” Mr. McDonnell wrote. “Unfortunately, inaction by you and Congress now leaves states and localities to adjust to the looming threat of this haphazard idea.”

The looming cuts come just as many states feel they are turning the corner after the prolonged slump caused by the recession. Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, a Democrat, said he was moving to increase the state’s cash reserves and rainy day funds as a hedge against federal cuts.

“I’d rather be spending those dollars on things that improve our business climate, that accelerate our recovery, that get more people back to work, or on needed infrastructure — transportation, roads, bridges and the like,” he said, adding that Maryland has eliminated 5,600 positions in recent years and that its government was smaller, on a per capita basis, than it had been in four decades. “But I can’t do that. I can’t responsibly do that as long as I have this hara-kiri Congress threatening to drive a long knife through our recovery.”

Federal spending on salaries, wages and procurement makes up close to 20 percent of the economies of Maryland and Virginia, according to an analysis by the Pew Center on the States.

But states are in a delicate position. While they fear the impact of the automatic cuts, they also fear that any deal to avert them might be even worse for their bottom lines. That is because many of the planned cuts would go to military spending and not just domestic programs, and some of the most important federal programs for states, including Medicaid and federal highway funds, would be exempt from the cuts.

States will see a reduction of $5.8 billion this year in the federal grant programs subject to the automatic cuts, according to an analysis by Federal Funds Information for States, a group created by the National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures that tracks the impact of federal actions on states. California, New York and Texas stand to lose the most money from the automatic cuts, and Puerto Rico, which is already facing serious fiscal distress, is threatened with the loss of more than $126 million in federal grant money, the analysis found.

Even with the automatic cuts, the analysis found, states are still expected to get more federal aid over all this year than they did last year, because of growth in some of the biggest programs that are exempt from the cuts, including Medicaid.

But the cuts still pose a real risk to states, officials said. State budget officials from around the country held a conference call last week to discuss the threatened cuts. “In almost every case the folks at the state level, the budget offices, are pretty much telling the agencies and departments that they’re not going to backfill — they’re not going to make up for the budget cuts,” said Scott D. Pattison, the executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, which arranged the call. “They don’t have enough state funds to make up for federal cuts.”

The cuts would not hit all states equally, the Pew Center on the States found. While the federal grants subject to the cuts make up more than 10 percent of South Dakota’s revenue, it found, they make up less than 5 percent of Delaware’s revenue.

Many state officials find themselves frustrated year after year by the uncertainty of what they can expect from Washington, which provides states with roughly a third of their revenues. There were threats of cuts when Congress balked at raising the debt limit in 2011, when a so-called super-committee tried and failed to reach a budget deal, and late last year when the nation faced the “fiscal cliff.”

John E. Nixon, the director of Michigan’s budget office, said that all the uncertainty made the state’s planning more difficult. “If it’s going to happen,” he said, “at some point we need to rip off the Band-Aid.”

Fernanda Santos contributed reporting.

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