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Searching For The Sequester In The Middle Of Ohio

In Columbus, Ohio, signs of the sequester were hard to find.
Kiichiro Sato
In Columbus, Ohio, signs of the sequester were hard to find.

It's been a little more than a month since the start of the sequester — the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that kicked in because Congress couldn't agree on something better.

Before it hit, there were dire and at times very specific predictions of job losses, furloughs and program cuts — many of them from the Obama administration.

Of course, it's still early. Everything you hear today about the effects of the sequester could and probably will change over the coming weeks and months.

But when I traveled to Columbus, Ohio, searching for signs of the sequester — real, tangible, quantifiable signs — they were hard to find.

At The Airport

Don Scott Field, owned by the Ohio State University, is one of 149 airports nationwide set to lose their contract air traffic controllers. Tower closures were supposed to begin Sunday at some airports, but the Federal Aviation Administration postponed the cuts until June 15.

So, for now, it's business as usual.

And in the interim, the university is fighting to persuade the FAA to keep its tower open every day from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., as it is now.

"Our focus is on the legal effort and insuring that the FAA understands how important this air traffic control tower operation is," says Jennifer Cowley, an associate dean at the College of Engineering, which runs the airport.

Then, as if on cue, a private jet lands as flight students taxi to take off for their day's lesson. Cowley says this is the fourth-busiest airport in Ohio.

"We have medical helicopters that are transporting organs. We have our student pilots, corporate jets. We have a huge mix of aircraft types that are flying at different speeds and different skill levels," Cowley says.

In The Lab

On campus, scientists are still trying to figure out exactly what the sequester will mean for them. Ohio State gets about $120 million a year in federal research grants.

Based on everything she knows, Caroline Whitacre, Ohio State's vice president for research, projects a $13 million cut in the coming fiscal year. It's only an estimate at this point, but she says it is affecting morale.

"People are very fearful, especially knowing that this is for 10 years," she says.

Already, Whitacre has seen a couple of grants come in with much lower than expected award amounts.

In The Classroom

Uncertainty was also in the air at a hotel on the north side of Columbus, where directors from the state's Head Start programs met last week.

"The truth is this sort of thing has never happened to us before in the history of Head Start," says Barbara Haxton, executive director of the Ohio Head Start Association. She says the federal Office of Head Start hasn't put out details and final figures yet, but the most likely scenario involves shortening the school year or simply cutting kids.

"The moms who have a 3-year-old in Head Start and who really, really treasure the experience aren't clear whether that 3-year-old when he turns 4 will have a slot in the program," Haxton says.

At Work

At the Defense Supply Center Columbus, furlough notices were printed and ready to go out to more than 7,000 civilian employees. At the last minute, they got a reprieve until maybe June, says Jim McClaugherty, the deputy commander.

"The day before the letters were to be given, you could see it on the face of some of the workforce," he says. "There's true anxiety and just uncertainty in their minds."

The Waiting Game

In preparing this story, NPR called a number of local program offices and state agencies in Ohio — and the answer was almost universally the same: "We don't know yet."

There are projections and predictions and estimates, but as Tim Keen, director of the Ohio Office of Budget and Management, puts it: "Until we get the specific information, it is hard for us to know what management actions might be necessary."

Keen says what he's gotten so far from federal agencies hasn't been enough. "We are waiting for technical guidance from the federal government agencies that indicates how much these reductions will be, to what grants and at what time these reductions will take effect," he says.

Prominent economists are standing behind their forecasts that the sequester could shave half to three-quarters of a point from economic growth this year. And they say it very likely won't show up until later.

The sequester is proving not to be a cliff, but more of a slope. Politically, that means — at least so far — there's not much pressure for Congress to undo or modify it.

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Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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