April 4, 2015 – San Antonio Express-News, By Sig Christenson
Automatic federal spending cuts over the last three years have hurt several Texas cities with large military installations — part of the budget sequester that will reduce the size of the Army by 80,000 soldiers through this fall.
All 6,100 workers at Texarkana’s Red River Army Depot were furloughed as the sequester took effect in 2013, triggering a dip in the area’s sales tax. Civilian jobs vanished at Fort Hood as the active-duty force shrank. In Corpus Christi, home to a sprawling helicopter repair depot, an unstated hiring policy is effect — one contract worker replaces every two who leave.
That’s just a sign of things to come.
Economic impact of major Army posts in Texas
A new wave of sequestration will begin in October when the Army — budgeted this year for 490,000 soldiers — begins to shed another 70,000 troops in programmed cuts through 2020. Once that happens, the reductions will cut into post payrolls, and neither the Army nor leaders of communities heavily impacted by the military know how bad things will get.
Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston could lose 6,000 of the post’s 37,468 uniformed and civilian workforce, along with 9,000 dependents, according to the local Chamber of Commerce, which closely follows military spending. The post has an $8.3 billion annual economic impact on San Antonio.
Congress, long deadlocked over the sequester, doesn’t look as if it will reverse course.
“That’s the frustrating thing. No one has done anything,” Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Richard Perez said. “The train is coming, we see the train, it’s blowing that whistle like nobody’s business, but we’re still standing in the middle of the way.”
Texas, home to 15 active-duty and reserve bases that have a $150-billion-a-year impact on the state’s economy, will take a large hit as the Army chops $95 billion from its budget because of sequestration.
Projections show that at least three Texas installations — Fort Sam, Fort Hood and Fort Bliss — will suffer deep cuts. Fort Bliss in El Paso is expected to lose up to 16,000 soldiers and 1,000 Army civilian workers. Up to 24,000 family members will be affected.
Pentagon budget cuts have come in waves as the costly Iraq and Afghanistan wars wound down. The 2011 Budget Control Act required the Defense Department to make $454 billion in across-the-board spending cuts over a decade.
Later, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel proposed cutting 70,000 soldiers from the Army, the largest of the armed services, while mothballing the A-10 Warthog tank-busting jet and a new troop carrier. He also ordered significant cuts into part-time forces that would slice 4,147 Texas Army National Guard soldiers from the ranks, with most coming from South Texas and Houston’s 72nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
The Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Raymond Odierno warned last year at Fort Sam that the next round of sequester cuts would spare no installation.
No one doubts him.
“As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, I’ve met with General Odierno, and he has been consistent, direct, and frank when discussing the effects sequestration will have on our armed forces,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio.
Calling Obama’s bluff
The sequester was crafted by the Obama administration, and many analysts expected Republicans to back away from the law because of its deep defense cuts. Budget hawks and liberals, however, embraced the measure and Congress has yet to revise it nearly four years after the bill became law.
The first cuts took effect in January 2013, with the Pentagon furloughing 800,000 workers over five months, including almost 30,000 in Texas. In San Antonio, more than 20,000 civilian employees were furloughed for 22 days.
No one in Washington expected President Barack Obama’s foes on the sequester to call his bluff, Nueces County Judge Loyd Neal said, but a stalemate ensued once they did.
“What do we do now?” asked Neal, a retired Army colonel who thinks the Corpus Christi Army Depot might eventually lose work as fewer soldiers serve in the ranks. “Well, what we’re doing now is we as a country are paying a tremendous price for that, and it’s not pretty.”
Texas had made big gains in the 2005 base-closure round. Fort Sam became the home of joint enlisted medic training, resulting in an increase of 11,205 military and civilian jobs and $3.3 billion in new construction. Fort Bliss, home to 13,278 soldiers in 2005, now has around 30,000.
Worried about protecting the city’s investment in Fort Sam, 1,200 people gathered last week for the last of 30 “listening sessions” around the country to address the cuts. Local leaders said they provide strong support for the military, including reaching out to troops and launching taxpayer-funded projects that benefited Army installations.
The state and local governments spent $750 million in transportation improvement projects for Fort Sam, Fort Bliss and Fort Hood, according to a 2014 Texas Military Value Task Force report.
City Councilman Joe Krier cited an informal motto among leaders here in dealing with the military — you asked for it, you got it. He pointed to city and state efforts to build a new exit off Interstate 35 to Fort Sam after the expansion of Brooke Army Medical Center. Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Murdock said the city spent millions on a bridge to help counter flooding that had stopped traffic on the post.
In El Paso, taxpayers have bankrolled $6 billion in projects to support Fort Bliss. The Texas Department of Transportation invested $2 billion in road projects in there, while voters supported another $2 billion in bonds for education, including new schools.
“I had someone make a statement to me this Monday, another journalist, who said it’s not the Army’s job to be concerned about the economic impact of the community to base all their decisions,” said Richard Dayoub, head of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce. “I have a tendency to disagree with that for this reason: In most cases, not all, the community, based on the guidance and direction and requests of the Army, make sizable investments outside the fence line to support the mission.”
Efforts to bolster installations are part of a strategy to protect them from force reductions or even closure, but they have a mixed record of success. Dave Davis, a chief of staff to former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said his boss steered hundreds of millions into construction projects for Texas bases, including Naval Station Ingleside, which later closed.
She also worked to create a unique deal that allowed San Antonio to support military research here by having the city manage Brooks AFB while leasing space back to the Air Force.
The Air Force later moved its operations out of Brooks.
“This is not pork-barreling because ultimately we believe Texas has greater military value in terms of training and quality of life than any other state,” said Davis, a Washington, D.C. lobbyist for military-impacted communities. “And at this point as we look down the road to another possible BRAC, Texas has paid its dues. We’ve had more than our share of closings. We’re pretty confident that in a transparent closure process, everything in Texas provides a better value than almost anywhere else you can train.”
Are base closures next?
For some in Texas, including the Texarkana Chamber of Commerce’s Jerry Sparks and former Killeen Mayor Dan Corbin, another base-closure round would be preferable to the sequester. They feel their installations would gain missions in the closure process, but are at risk as thousands more soldiers get pink slips.
“I think that it’s likely that we could lose around 6,000 people. If that happens, 6,000 military and probably 1,000 civilians,” said Corbin, a Vietnam veteran.
Calling the sequester “the result of political gamesmanship in Washington D.C.,” Mayor Ivy Taylor said that “even Congress has already realized that the impacts on the military were disastrous and has allocated additional funds to address shortfalls.”
But most leaders around the state doubt the Army will protect cities from downsizing. Neither Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, nor Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, offered a way out in an appearance last week at the Westin Riverwalk.
“Sequestration was the only way we could contain discretionary spending for several years, but it’s clear that now we’re going to have to change it and increase spending for the Defense Department if we’re going to keep our commitment to national security in an increasingly dangerous world,” said Cornyn, who voted for the sequester but would change the law.
“The possibility that, because of sequestration, tens of thousands of people across our country could lose their jobs, and that our country’s readiness might suffer, is deeply concerning,” said Castro, who was not in Congress when the sequester was approved.
The San Antonio chamber’s Perez worries, too, but isn’t looking for a miracle.
“Our elected leaders in D.C. haven’t been able to put partisanship aside to act in the best interests of the nation,” Perez said. “And that’s what puts my stomach in a ball, and it hurts.”
The information above is for general awareness only and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Economic Adjustment or the Department of Defense as a whole.