SC congressional leaders: 'Fiscal cliff' may be averted but military cuts still likely

The (Columbia) StateNovember 22, 2012 

COLUMBIA -- Members of the S.C. congressional delegation have told the state's military boosters that $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts set to take place Jan. 3 -- called "sequestration" or the "fiscal cliff" -- probably won't occur.

But the state's lawmakers disagree on what will take its place to reduce the budget deficit, and warn that more military cuts will come through another round of base closings or other measures, leaders of the state's Military Base Task Force said last week.

"Generically, everybody thought sequestration was the wrong thing to do and that they were very, very confident that sequestration in the current form would not happen," said retired Maj. Gen. William "Dutch" Holland, a former chief of the 9th Air Force who serves as the task force's executive coordinator. "But from there, the details vary greatly. ... It's still going to be a fight."

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, whose city is home to Fort Jackson, a massive training base, got much the same message from the White House and congressional leaders in Washington on Nov. 15.

"The sense I'm getting is there is going to have to be some kind of a grand bargain between now and the first of the year," he said. "I hope the sequester is avoided. A meat-cleaver approach to budgeting is never preferred."

He and about a dozen other members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors met with Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and others to express concerns about the domestic side of the cuts, as well as proposed cuts to the military. The $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts would be split evenly between military and domestic spending.

Benjamin noted that such things as Community Development Block Grants and the tax exemption for purchasing municipal bonds would be scrapped under the current plan, making it more difficult to maintain and improve cities' infrastructures.

"We're trying to make sure that politicians up here understand the ramifications of their positions and how it trickles down to regular people," he said.

A South Carolina Department of Commerce study released Nov. 13 stated the military pumps $15.7 billion a year into the state's economy and supports more than 138,000 jobs. But those jobs and their economic impact are in jeopardy if more military cuts occur.

The study reported that Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort contributes 8,544 jobs and adds $702 million to the local economy; Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island's impact is 5,307 jobs and $594 million; and Naval Hospital Beaufort contributes 1,591 jobs and $167 million.

The Pentagon already has identified $487 billion in cuts that will take place over the next decade, due in part to the end of combat operations in Iraq and a proposed drawdown of troops in Afghanistan.

But another $600 billion in cuts over 10 years could be required beginning Jan. 3 because of last year's debt-ceiling standoff in Congress and the failure of a congressional supercommittee to make the $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions.

The task force was appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley to protect and enhance South Carolina's significant military infrastructure, which accounts for 7 percent of the state's economy.

S.C. Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, task force chairman, said S.C. congressional delegation members, interviewed before the presidential election, gave different scenarios depending on who won.

"So we have a little better understanding of what we will be facing as a state, although there is still a lot of uncertainty," he said. "We gained some insights from our conversations that would tend to provide to us a little more calm in the face of the storm that is raging in Washington."

The Beaufort Gazette and Island Packet staff contributed.

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