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Educationby Mark Reutter9:24 amMar 5, 20130

The sequester in Baltimore: who’s affected, who’s not

Our review finds the impact of mandatory federal budget cuts less dire than described, though the poor are most vulnerable.

Above: The sequestration axe will trim some city expenditures, but nothing like the horror movie conjured up by the mayor and others.

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has been using her bully pulpit as mayor to warn about the consequences of mandatory federal budget cuts (a.k.a., “the sequester”) on schools, social services, public safety, health, workforce investment and housing.

Describing the budget cuts as “devastating for Baltimore” in an email message to citizens last Friday, the mayor spent a good bit of yesterday meting out gloomy predictions on Twitter.

According to the mayor’s tweets: “The cost of congressional inaction is severe,” “Cities are not in a position to fill the gaps,” “Some of the projected cuts will pull the rug from under vulnerable people,” “I called an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the impact of federal budget cuts caused by the sequestration.”

The mayor and City Hall are treading into new territory – as are all big cities and states – and there are few specifics about how the federal cuts will play out in Baltimore.

But the details that have emerged indicate that, at least in the short run, the sequester will cause minor changes in the way city government functions.

The probability of layoffs of city employees is low at this time – and most residents will likely detect few cutbacks in city services.

What’s important to understand, according to nonpartisan analysts such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is that the sequester does not “zero out” – or close – any federal agency or program. Instead, the budgets of agencies and discretionary programs are being reduced by as much as 8%.

Social Security and Welfare are Exempt

On the other hand, many mandatory programs, such as Social Security and Medicaid, as well as some important low-income programs, like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (welfare) and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (food stamps), are exempt from the sequester.

In all, there are 148 exempt defense and non-defense federal programs, including military pay, veterans benefits, Pell Grants and crop insurance.  And that’s not counting the salaries and benefits for the 535 members of Congress and the president – they are also protected from sequestration.

In the case of Medicare, there will be a 2% cut in provider payments. This means that the program will continue to operate the same for those covered, but providers (hospitals, doctors) will receive 98 cents for every $1 in current reimbursements.

All this does not mean there will be no pain, especially among low-income residents who rely on programs partly funded by federal dollars.

Poor Will be Most Vulnerable

Head Start is being cut nationwide by $406 million, or about 5% of its budget, which may mean that several hundred children in Baltimore may, eventually, be kicked out of the program. But by the time that happens, state, city or private funds may have filled the gap.

WIC (Women, Infants and Children) nutrition services are also subject to sequester cuts, as are the Low Income House Energy Assistance Program and Section 8 housing. Mayor Rawlings-Blake has predicted that Community Development Block Grants (currently at $12.3 million) may be cut by $1.5 million, which appears to be on the high end of the scale.

The mayor also said that “we could lose over $300,000 for adult job services” out of $19.1 million now going to the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development.

There will be cuts in federal grant aid for policing and security programs, but whether these reductions will cause significant harm to public safety – as the mayor suggested in her e-mail message last Friday – is at least partly dependent on how the new police commissioner, Anthony W. Batts, strategically handles the cuts.

Asked for further examples of potential cuts to city programs, Ian Brennan, the mayor’s spokesman, repeated that “public safety, housing, education, health and more” will be affected and added this in an e-mail:

“That funding will be cut is not the issue. Every agency is in constant communication with their federal counterparts regarding specific service reductions.”

No Immediate Impact on Education

Last week, the mayor told The Sun that the sequester could lead to 100 teacher layoffs in city schools. Her staff later acknowledged that number referred to statewide, not citywide impacts on education.

Andrés Alonso, CEO of Baltimore public schools, will have to contend with about $5 million less in Title 1 grant funding (out of a $1.3 billion budget) if the present stalemate in Washington persists. He has a wide range of options, including reducing or eliminating school programs, instead of laying off teachers.

The fact is that the state government, not Washington, provides the bulk of non-city-generated aid to schools. But Baltimore got a special $54.2 million injection of Title 1 grants from President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009.

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