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California braces for impending cuts from federal sequestration

The combined effects of cuts in defense and other programs are expected to slow the momentum that California's economy has been building over the last year.

February 25, 2013|By Ricardo Lopez and Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times
  • Crews in Yosemite National Park work to clear snow off the road in May 2011. Snow plowing of a key route over the Sierra would be delayed under impending federal budget cuts, the National Park Service said.
Crews in Yosemite National Park work to clear snow off the road in May 2011.… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

California's defense industry is bracing for a $3.2-billion hit with the federal budget cuts that are expected to take effect Friday.

But myriad other federally funded programs also are threatened, and the combined effect is expected to slow the momentum that California's economy has been building over the last year.

As the state braces for pain from so-called sequestration, there are warnings of long delays at airport security checkpoints, potential slowdowns in cargo movement at harbors and cutbacks to programs, including meals for seniors and projects to combat neighborhood blight.

Despite the grim scenarios from local and state officials, economists say the cuts' overall blow to the economy would be modest, felt more acutely in regions such as defense-heavy San Diego and by Californians dependent on federal programs, such as college students who rely on work-study jobs to pay for school.

Critics say the cuts come at an inopportune time because the economic recovery in the U.S. and California is still weak.

"We need stimulus, not premature austerity," Gov. Jerry Brown said during a break at the National Governors Assn. meeting in Washington.

Rep. John Campbell (R-Irvine) contends that critics of the cuts are exaggerating the effects.

"If we can't do this, what can we do" to reduce Washington's red ink, he asked. "We ought to be panicked about the day when people won't buy our debt anymore because we borrowed too much."

If automatic spending cuts occur as planned, the growth in the country's gross domestic product is likely to slow by 0.4 percentage points this year, from about 2% to 1.6%, economists said.

California's GDP would see a similar slowdown. The state stands to lose as much as $10 billion in federal funding this year, according to Stephen Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto.

Levy said the more than $1 trillion in cuts planned over the next decade include "items in the federal budget that invest for the future," such as support for research and clean energy, that particularly affect California because of its "innovation economy."

The ripple effects the cuts might have on business and consumer confidence — which would further dampen economic activity — remain to be seen, said Jason Sisney, a deputy at the state's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.

"We're at a point where gains in housing and construction markets have begun to take hold," Sisney said. "A slowdown from sequestration would come at just the moment that the economy was beginning to right itself."

Jerry Nickelsburg, a UCLA economist who writes a quarterly economic forecast on the Golden State, said the state's recent economic gains would provide a buffer against sequestration.

"California can absorb it," Nickelsburg said. "Will it slow economic growth? The answer is yes. Will it result in negative economic growth? I think the answer is no."

Los Angeles officials project that the city would lose more than $100 million at a time when they're struggling to close a hole in the city's budget.

Douglas Guthrie, chief executive of the Los Angeles city housing authority, said Monday that rent subsidies to as many as 15,000 low-income families would be cut an average $200 a month, forcing many families to search for less expensive housing. His agency also might face as many as 80 layoffs in an already reduced workforce.

But Guthrie said in a letter to the Los Angeles City Council that the housing authority must plan for the "painful consequences" of the federal budget cuts and is preparing to send warning notices to participants in the housing assistance program "as soon as we see that the cuts are made and there are no immediate prospects to resolve the budget crisis."

At Yosemite National Park, snow plowing of a key route over the Sierra would be delayed, ranger-led programs are likely to be reduced and the park would face "less frequent trash pickup, loss of campground staff, and reduced focus on food storage violations, all of which contribute to visitor safety concerns and increased bear mortality rates," according to the National Park Service.

Some programs, such as Social Security, would be spared from the $85 billion in cuts nationwide due to kick in Friday. But defense programs are expected to be cut by about 13% for the remainder of the fiscal year and domestic spending by about 9%, according to the White House budget office.

The Obama administration sought Monday to highlight the effects close to home in an effort to step up the pressure on Congress to replace across-the-board cuts with more targeted reductions and new tax revenue collected from taxpayers earning more than $1 million a year.

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