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Sequestration in the coulee means uncertainty

 


In this community, whose economy is based overwhelmingly on a federal payroll and outsourced contracts, not a lot is yet certain about how the latest fiscal political drama emanating from the other Washington will play out.

“Sequestration” became the law of the land on March 1. An act passed by Congress in 2011 was designed to give time for Democrats and Republicans to agree on a path toward reducing the nation’s deficit spending. It imposes across-the-board budget cuts on everybody’s favorite federal programs. At the time, it was assumed such cuts would be so repulsive to Congress that compromise on the deficit would surely result. It didn’t work out that way.

The entire federal government must now cut about $85 billion out of the budget for this year. The Department of the Interior, of which the National Park Service and the bureaus of Reclamation and Indian Affairs are a part, must cut some $800 million in a seven-month period, effectively a nine-percent cut to programs over that time.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar wrote to all DOI employees Friday that despite reductions in spending on everything from overtime to conferences, he expects furloughs for thousands of permanent employees across the 76,000-employee department. But he noted that woud vary from program to program.

Local federal leaders don’t know exactly what that means to local federal programs, but hiring is now frozen for the NPS and Reclamation, just in time to hurt seasonal programs that typically hire starting in March.

At Grand Coulee Dam, officials are “still in the process of sorting out what impact, if any, that’s going to have on us,” said Power Manager Mark Jenson.

Part of Jenson’s uncertainty stems from the fact that the project he heads isn’t funded like most of the federal government. In the mid-1990s Congress approved a plan that would allow the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells the electricity generated by federal hydropower dams on the Columbia River, to fund maintenance and operations of the dam directly. Those dollars earned from power sales come from BPA, not through the U.S. Treasury, but it’s still federal money.

The hiring freeze, however, may impact even the local economy if Congress does not act soon. Neither Reclamation nor the NPS can currently hire seasonal employees to staff visitor centers, conduct tours, mow lawns, collect camping fees, clean rest rooms or keep the lasers on in the new laser light show at the dam, the biggest tourist attraction in Eastern Washington.

Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area Superintendent Dan Foster said the NPS was told to plan for a five-percent reduction. Foster just took his new position in February. He said LRNRA is waiting for direction from the NPS regional office on just how to implement the cuts.

“Obviously, there are going to be some impacts,” he said, and people familiar with their facilities may notice differences, such as uncut lawns, but no facility closures.

“As of right now,” he said Tuesday, “we’re not planning on closing anything.”

At Grand Coulee Dam, contractors will still be able to deliver on a new $1.6 million laser light show scheduled to start this summer, but how often, or whether, it will be seen each night is uncertain.

“If hiring constraints come into play,” Jenson noted, “that may affect our Visitor Center operations and the laser show.”

Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in Nespelem and Portland declined to comment, referring questions to a Washington, D.C. office, which could not be reached for this story.

 

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