Sequester effects less painful than expected, but lawmakers still unhappy

Jun 21, 2013

The congressionally mandated budget cuts called sequestration continue to have an impact on Wyoming. And while the state’s Republican lawmakers say those cuts aren’t having as big of an impact as predicted by Democrats, Matt Laslo reports from Washington that the delegation still isn’t happy with the sequester.

MATT LASLO: Remember how the sky was supposed to fall because of sequestration? Well those indiscriminate budget cuts that are ripping through just about every agencies budget in the federal government haven’t been felt as deeply as many politicians promised. But Wyoming Republican Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis says as the summer months roll on they may rear their head yet again.

CYNTHIA LUMMIS: I am sure as the weeks go on we will learn of more areas where there has been a genuine impact. Impact is not always viewed as something that has to be dealt with more federal funds. So, thankfully our culture is such that we adapt pretty well.

LASLO: While the cuts aren’t as bad in Wyoming as elsewhere people are feeling them. Some physicians have volunteered for days off, Cheyenne’s Airport was able to stay open in spite of painful cuts. And National Parks have less federal funds but the state and the private sector were able to fill in some of the gaps. Lummis says sequestration is bringing out the Wyoming spirit.

LUMMIS: When federal funds dry up or government funds dry up we turn to each other in the private sector, your friends, and fortunately that’s the culture of Wyoming.

LASLO: Then there’s the state’s oil and gas revenue.  

MIKE ENZI: When they go to sequestering federal mineral royalties, that’s 53 million dollars. That’s a lot of money in Wyoming and we are concerned about it.

LASLO: That’s Wyoming senior Senator Mike Enzi. He and a bipartisan group of lawmakers from numerous western states say the federal government is abusing its authority. Enzi thinks the state has a strong case to recoup that money later…and he’s still introduced legislation to cement the state’s claim.

ENZI: I have got a bill in that would allow the state to collect it, and do whatever costs there are on their side, which would be true costs. And then send 50 percent to the federal government. That way what the federal government gets is considered revenue. What the federal government sends back to us is considered a tax expenditure, and therefore subject to sequester.

LASLO: While Wyoming’s Republicans like the budget savings from sequestration, all of them want to redirect those cuts to different personal and party priorities....the way Congress is supposed to legislate: methodically. There’s a hang-up though. The two parties are so far apart on tax policy that Republican and Democratic leaders in D-C can’t even agree to meet and talk about the budget and spending. Enzi says both sides of this political debate are being petty.

ENZI: Both of them are asking for regular order and then denying it.

LASLO: Enzi has been in the Senate since the nineties. In today’s younger Senate that makes him a veteran. His perennial complaint in this Congress is that there’s no regular order. That’s Washington-speak for saying the legislative process is out of whack. Enzi says lawmakers in both parties need to roll up their sleeves and hold some tough negotiations. But currently Republicans are blocking a formal budget conference committee from even forming. That’s where leaders in the two chambers would designate appointees to work out major differences on spending priorities. Enzi says it’s not that hard under the old way of doing things.

ENZI: If it were done right the chairmen and the ranking member of the Budget Committee would sit down, and work out some differences before they ever started, and come up with a basic bill. Which both sides could then amend. Instead of making it contentious it could be made agreeable. And then we could come up with a budget that would be workable.

LASLO: Currently Republicans are blocking that formal budget conference because they’re worried Democrats will try to hike taxes and increase the nation’s debt ceiling as a part of any potential deal. Like Enzi, Lummis rejects the arguments of members of her own party on that point.

LUMMIS: I would love to see a budget become part of a debt ceiling deal, because then finally we would have a road map that both parties agreed on in both houses, going forward for the next ten years.

LASLO: Lummis says the current political climate in D-C is pinching this economy until it screams.

LUMMIS: Uncertainty in Washington has the entire country bogged down. Whether it is local government, state government, private sector, investments that are on the sidelines, investments that are overseas on the sidelines, our indecision may be the biggest obstacle to breaking the log jam in this economy.

LASLO: So what can Wyoming’s lawmakers do to convince their party leaders to put the politics aside?

LUMMIS: I am nudging, I am nudging on a whole bunch of different scenarios.

LASLO: Nudging and all, Lummis still isn’t very optimistic any grand bargain can come out of Washington in the near future.

LUMMIS: My expectations are low for that kind of deal.

LASLO: So in the meantime Wyoming officials are left with budget uncertainty, Wyoming residents are being increasingly inconvenienced - and in some cases pinched really hard economically - and all the while partisan gridlock continues to reign supreme in your nation's capital. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Matt Laslo in Washington.