WASHINGTON — Federal spending cuts set to be triggered on March 1 would mean 16,000 U.S. Air Force civilians in Oklahoma could be furloughed, mostly at Tinker Air Force Base, depriving those workers of nearly $125 million in pay over six months, Air Force officials said.
The severity of the impact in Oklahoma, which has three Air Force bases, would be second only to Texas, where the payroll hit would top $127 million.
Should across-the-board cuts, known as the sequester, go into effect, furloughs likely would begin in mid-April, military leaders told Congress last week. Some workers may be furloughed as many as 22 days between April and Sept. 30. That would amount to a 20 percent pay cut during that time frame, according to the Air Force's top uniformed leader.
In addition to the furloughs, about $20 million in scheduled work to maintain or modernize Air Force bases in Oklahoma would be canceled.
Private contractors around the bases also may be affected, though some large ones with Oklahoma workers declined to speculate on the potential impact of the budget cuts.
Congress in recess
Congress left town on Friday for a weeklong recess without passing legislation to replace the automatic cuts, which were part of the 2011 deal to raise the debt ceiling. That deal requires $1.2 trillion in spending reductions over 10 years, with the U.S. Defense Department bearing about half of the total.
President Barack Obama is calling for Congress to replace the across-the-board cuts with a combination of tax hikes and targeted cuts. Senate Democrats on Thursday proposed a package that would impose a new tax on millionaires, but Republicans in the House and Senate oppose more tax revenue as a way of stopping the sequester.
Oklahoma's air bases
There are three Air Force bases in Oklahoma.
Tinker has multiple missions and about 14,000 civilian workers. If the cuts go into effect and last throughout the rest of the fiscal year, the massive aircraft repair depot that employs about 9,000 civilians — along with Air Force depots in Utah and Georgia — would cut back sharply on maintenance, creating backlogs that will take years to recover from, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III told lawmakers.
Vance Air Force Base, near Enid, and Altus Air Force Base are pilot training centers and part of the Air Education and Training Command.
Should the cuts go into effect, Welsh said, the command will curtail advanced flight training in April, while initial qualification training might continue until September.
Altus has about 2,000 civilian workers, while Vance has fewer than 200.
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, of Tulsa, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has asked all of the military services to provide data on how the cuts would affect bases in each state, though only the Air Force has responded.
“There is a growing concern that the president will not seriously negotiate with Congress on a compromise to sequestration until after it takes place on March 1, 2013, and each member of Congress hears of the pain affecting their constituents,” Inhofe said.
“But the real pain will be felt by the men and women serving our country who will see resources they need to defend the nation arbitrarily cut.”
U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, whose district includes Tinker and Fort Sill, the U.S. Army artillery training post in Lawton, said Friday, “There's no question the sequester cuts will have a major impact on Oklahoma's civilian workforce and on our defense capability in general.”
Cole said House Republicans passed legislation twice in 2012 to redistribute the cuts to protect the military. He said President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats “have yet to propose serious solutions of their own.”
“My Oklahoma colleagues and I are taking this very seriously, but we can't prevent these cuts without some cooperation from the White House,” Cole said.
The president, however, has criticized the approach Republicans favor to replace the sequester.
“Now, some in Congress have proposed preventing only the defense cuts by making even bigger cuts to things like education and job training, Medicare and Social Security benefits. That idea is even worse,” Obama said in his State of the Union speech.
At a hearing last week, military leaders warned that private contractors would also be harmed by the work stoppages forced by the budget cuts.
Jennifer Hogan, a spokeswoman for Boeing in Oklahoma City, said the company has about 1,300 defense-related workers in the state, a number expected to expand to 1,700 by the end of the year.
She said, “It is too early to speculate on what deep defense budget cuts might mean for individual programs or the facilities that support them. That said, Boeing has been anticipating declining U.S. defense budgets for several years, and we have been making the changes necessary to compete and grow in this environment.”
Randy Belote III, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman, also declined to speculate on specific impacts at the company.
“We are urging Congress to work to avoid sequestration's negative economic impacts, particularly in terms of government and private employment, the industrial base and its suppliers, as well as the impacts to our national security,” Belote said.