Congressional leaders face a critical deadline next week – they must reach a budget agreement by Dec. 13 or the next round of sequester cuts goes into effect, reducing vital government programs by billions of dollars for the second year in a row. Nothing less than our nation’s global competitiveness is on the line.
I had the privilege to be included in a small group of university presidents from around the country that met just before the holiday with leaders at the highest levels of the U.S. Congress to discuss the deep and dramatic damage caused by the sequester specifically and fiscal uncertainty in general. Organized with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the trip featured visits with members from both sides of the aisle, including Washington’s Sen. Patty Murray, chair of the Senate Budget Committee, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who serves as chair of the House Republican Conference. Based on those visits, I believe there is reason for cautious optimism that an agreement will be reached.
Without an agreement, however, our nation’s standing in the world community and our ability to compete in the global marketplace is in jeopardy. Because while all institutions can provide examples of specific cuts over the past year and their impact to the economy, it is the long-term and ongoing nature of sequester that will be devastating not just for the schools but also for the communities and industries that we support.
In FY2013, the sequester meant a 5 percent reduction for most government agencies, many of them primary funders of higher education research and extension programs. For example, the National Institutes of Health lost $1.55 billion in the budget cuts; the U.S. Department of Agriculture lost $2 billion. Those research and extension programs directly support people and businesses through services, science-based solutions and innovation. Without a budget agreement, these cuts will be even deeper.
Let me illustrate three examples of real cuts with real impacts at WSU:
• The College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences experienced a $3.8 million cut as a result of the sequester and the delay in reauthorizing the Farm Bill. We were able to pull together some one-time funds to help bridge to the current fiscal year, in hopes those cuts would be restored. Obviously, they were not, and as a result, important food and nutrition programs aimed at helping low-income populations in our state have been eliminated. Significantly, eliminating the program resulted in the loss of both jobs as well as the services those jobs provided – a multiple economic hit.
• The sequester cut funding for Small Business Development Centers around the country. As a result, several of the Small Business Development Centers WSU operates have been forced to close. These are centers specifically designed to prime the economic pump by helping entrepreneurs succeed in communities that most need economic development resources for small businesses. The SBDCs are revered in their communities for creating jobs and growing business. At this time, we have identified a small amount of funding to keep at least two of these offices open and are working with our Congressional leaders for a permanent funding solution.
• On-going funding for the Clean Plant Network – a facility focused on ensuring the security, health and vitality of the plant stock on which our food supply depends – is in question. Loss of the CPN would cause serious, long-term damage to our state and nation’s food and agricultural industry. The food industry is Washington State’s largest industry, and WSU is a key partner to that industry. Incremental cuts to this industry will have a crippling effect on our state economy.
Finding bridge funding is not a sustainable model, and we will not be able to make those same accommodations next year. Nor will other institutions. Ongoing fiscal uncertainty at the federal level hurts local and state economies – especially at a time when our economic health is just beginning to improve. And, year after year of cuts will damage industries that rely on university research and an educated work force. In my opinion, the sequester and its relentless series of cuts is the biggest threat to our national competitiveness, and the time to address it is now.