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Originally published February 26, 2013 at 8:26 PM | Page modified February 28, 2013 at 6:10 AM

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Sequester would hammer some communities, spare others

The massive federal budget cuts that could kick in Friday would afflict big cities and military communities, but largely bypass middle-class suburbs and rural areas.

The Washington Post

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In Killeen, Texas, where the country’s largest Army post drives the local economy, automatic federal budget cuts would furlough about 6,000 of Fort Hood’s civil-service workers for one day each week.

Mayor Dan Corbin predicted home sales and construction would grind to a halt; restaurant and shop owners, he said, are “worried sick.”

Of those who think the reductions wouldn’t have a painful impact, the Republican said: “I don’t know what planet these people are living on.”

President Obama is painting a dire portrait of across-the-board doom and gloom from the automatic cuts, known as sequestration, set to begin Friday.

But the sequester is really like a tornado, scattershot in its course. It would strike some communities and largely bypass others, cutting across class, politics and geography.

Interviews with more than a dozen state and municipal leaders coast to coast show that the sequester would afflict big cities and military communities — because of cuts to social programs and defense — far more than middle-class suburbs or rural areas.

The disparity in some ways mirrors the nation’s electoral divide between Democrats and Republicans.

The discrepancies help explain why House Republicans — many of whom represent rural and outer suburban districts — feel little urgency to strike a deal with Obama and avert the sequester.

They also suggest the misery expected Friday would not be universal, meaning public outcry may not be widespread enough to propel Washington toward a quick solution.

“Until the pain gets hard enough, they probably won’t do anything,” said Steve Bell of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The sequester is a package of across-the-board, indiscriminate spending cuts that total $85 billion for the current fiscal year and $1.2 trillion over the next decade.

The cuts are split evenly between the defense budget and nondefense discretionary spending, which includes many federal grants to state and local agencies. Mandatory programs, including Social Security and Medicaid, are spared.

Military communities would be hit hard with work stoppages. Pay for border-patrol agents would be cut. Some funding for teachers would get the ax, and reductions are in store for HIV testing, job-search aid and Meals on Wheels for seniors.

And yet the federal government is so sprawling that millions of Americans may never feel any effect from the cuts.

“This is not a situation where on the second of March the lights are going to go off or people are going to be sent home,” Bell said. “This is a slow-moving kind of situation which will aggregate itself.”

In Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest public-school district would lose $37 million in federal funding. Schools Superintendent John Deasy said that amounts to about $100,000 per school — “easily an employee or employee and a half.” The budget cuts would specifically affect programs that help impoverished students, many of whom speak Spanish, prepare for kindergarten and learn to read.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a Democrat, said the budget cuts would affect the most vulnerable residents of his city. Head Start and employment-training programs would suffer, and some grant money to fight crime in high-impact neighborhoods would disappear.

“Minneapolis is a very successful city on almost every level except we have a very large gap between haves and have-nots, and this will cut exactly those services that help close the gap,” he said.

Besides these cuts, Rybak said any other impact from the sequester would be more indirect — such as a corresponding dip in the consumer economy.

He said he worries that Target and Best Buy, which are headquartered in Minneapolis, might have declining sales if customers nationwide spend less amid the uncertainty.

For Hennepin County, which encompasses Minneapolis and many of its suburbs, the impact would be minimal, said Mike Opat, chairman of Hennepin County Board of Commissioners. “If you’re not receiving a check or food stamps, you’re probably not likely to hear the impact of the sequester immediately.”

The same cannot be said for such military communities as Newport News, Va., where Obama visited a nuclear-submarine factory on Tuesday to sound the alarm about deep defense cuts.

In Hinesville, Ga., where Fort Stewart dominates the local economy, Mayor James Thomas Jr. said the sequester would have a $56 million impact, forcing furloughs at the massive Army post. He said it would be the biggest blow to Hinesville’s businesses since the Persian Gulf War in 1990, when thousands of U.S. troops deployed to Kuwait.

There are similar worries along Arizona’s border with Mexico, where agents with the U.S. Border Patrol are bracing for furloughs.

Art Del Cueto, president of Local 2544, the union that represents more than 3,000 border-patrol agents, said the forced time off would mean pay cuts of up to 40 percent.

“Who in this country can afford a 40 percent pay cut?” Del Cueto said. “If they’re saying it’s not going to have an impact, that’s lying. They need to come down here and walk in the agents’ boots.”

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