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White House says ‘sequester’ will cost state millions; critics call it scare tactics

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WASHINGTON – Arizona could face massive budget cuts across all public programs, from education and healthcare to Army base operations, if federal budget cuts are allowed to take effect as scheduled Friday, the White House warned.

The cuts – ranging from $17.7 million from public education to $43 million from Army bases – were spelled out Sunday by the Obama administration, which released state-by-state estimates of the impact of the so-called budget “sequester.”

The sequester could cut up to $85 billion in federal spending nationally over the next seven months, the first step in a 2011 plan to cut $1.2 trillion over 10 years. The automatic cuts, split equally between defense and domestic budgets, were supposed to force Congress and the White House to agree on a long-term budget reduction plan.

That did not happen, and few expect a deal will be reached before Friday.

Arizona lawmakers agreed that the cuts could hurt, but some chided the White House for focusing on the cuts and not on alternative measures.

“The White House is busying itself with these political tactics instead of coming to the table and finding an actual solution,” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said in a prepared statement Monday. That statement called the administration’s release of detailed cuts a scare tactic.

President Barack Obama told a meeting of the National Governors Association on Monday that Congress could avert the cuts “any time with just a little bit of compromise,” but is has been unwilling to do that.

“Congress is poised to allow a series of arbitrary, automatic budget cuts … and leave a lot of folks who are already pretty thinly stretched scrambling,” he said, according to a transcript of his remarks.

He called on the governors, including Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, to lobby their congressional delegations to take action.

Brewer said Obama was asking “a little bit much.”

“He should do his job and get us out of this mess,” she said.

The White House said Arizona could face deep cuts to public health services that would result in thousands of children not being vaccinated for diseases like tetanus and mumps. Other public health cuts could result in fewer HIV tests and treatments for substance abuse.

It also predicted the cuts would lead to furloughs for 10,000 civilian Defense Department employees in the state and put hundreds of teachers’ jobs at risk.

Isabel Sawhill, a federal budget expert at the Brookings Institution, said the across-the-board cuts would be disruptive and would lead to stagnation in an economy that is just beginning to grow again.

“They are more like a meat cleaver than the careful pruning we should do,” she said of the sequester cuts.

She said if the states were left to fill budget gaps on their own it could lead to sales taxes and other types of indirect taxation locally.

Rep. David Schweikert, R-Scottsdale, agreed with Flake that the Obama administration’s time would be better spent finding a resolution to the long-term federal budget problem. But he said backing away from cuts is not a solution.

“Until Washington gets serious about controlling spending, the sequester is an imperfect but necessary solution to reduce the out-of-control spending that threatens our future,” he said in an email.

But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said that voters are going to start feeling the pain soon after the cuts take effect, as access to public lands is restricted and large numbers of people living in poverty will no longer have services.

“There is going to be a reckoning time,” he said.

The administration continued its campaign Monday, with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano saying at a White House briefing that the sequester could lead to longer lines at airports and border crossings, less money for immigration enforcement and other cuts.

Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson, agreed that sequestration will mean fewer border patrol agents in his border district.

Barber said lawmakers had failed the public by leaving yet another budget crisis to the 11th hour. He said that Congress has used its time irresponsibly, and it was time for Democrats and Republicans to stop blaming each other and get to work on a solution.

“It’s a failure of leadership all around,” Barber said.

- Cronkite News Service reporter Connor Radnovich contributed to this story.