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Some agencies hit harder than others

With mandatory federal spending cuts set to kick in Friday without a last minute compromise on Capitol Hill, some state and local officials are taking a wait-and-see attitude while others expressed deep concerns about the fallout from the so-called sequester.

Cuts to the military have received much of the attention, but a state-by-state breakdown by the White House says the spending reductions would impact Ohio in myriad other ways, with cuts to education, job programs, mental health and substance abuse treatment, environmental protection, and programs for women, children and seniors.

Hardest hit would be those programs that rely most on federal funding.

While members of each political party blamed the other for the looming crisis, “Regardless of who’s to blame, the unwitting victims are people who like to breathe clean air, drink clean water and eat safe food,” said Jack Shaner, spokesman for the Ohio Environmental Council in Columbus.

Ohio would lose nearly $6.9 million in funding to protect air and water quality and prevent pollution from pesticides and hazardous waste, the White House said. The state would lose almost $1 million more in grants for fish and wildlife protection.

Shaner said federal funds account for 22.7 percent of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed fiscal 2014 budget of $202.6 million. The mandatory cuts “could have a devastating impact on Ohio EPA’s ability to enforce the law, from the engineers with those nerdy pocket protectors writing permits to the scientists in the white coats in the laboratory to the enforcers out there in the field with badge and gun. If we don’t have a cop on the beat, it’s going to be tough to find the bad guys.”

Ohio EPA has about 100 unfilled positions, Shaner said, and “we may never see those filled if sequestration happens.”

The spending cuts would also deliver a blow to mental health and substance abuse treatment. According to the White House, Ohio would lose $3.3 million in substance abuse prevention and treatment grants, “resulting in around 4,200 fewer admissions to substance abuse programs.”

On the national level, “up to 373,000 seriously mentally ill adults and seriously emotionally disturbed children could go untreated,” the White House reported. “This would likely lead to increased hospitalizations, involvement in the criminal justice system and homelessness for these individuals.”

Terry Russell, executive director of the Ohio chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said “any cuts in a grossly underfunded system would certainly affect the ability to treat adults and children. Untreated mental illness is the number one thing people should be worried about if they’re concerned about 2012 and the terrible incidents that happened in this country. That concerns us greatly.”

Helen Jones Kelley points out that most untreated mentally ill people don’t commit crimes of violence, but she said failure to provide treatment, housing and job assistance to people with addictions and mental illness means “that many more people unemployed, that many more people living on the streets, that many more people who aren’t getting access to the treatment they need. A lot of people are living on the margins as it is.”

Benjamin Johnson, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, said his agency could lose nearly $1.8 million in job search assistance for 57,100 people under the White House analysis, and funding that provides day care for up to 800 disadvantaged children.

“We don’t have any idea exactly how this will play out,” Johnson said. He said if the cuts aren’t averted, the agency must wait for formal notification from the federal government detailing how much funding will be cut, when and from what funding source.

“We will work to manage the cuts and minimize the impact to our local partners, and I’m sure they in turn will manage the cuts to minimize the impact to Ohioans,” Johnson said. “That’s not to say there won’t be impacts.”

Montgomery County Republican Party Chairman Rob Scott said he hopes sequestration can be averted, but he blamed the crisis on President Obama.

“The one thing that has gone very under-reported is the sequester was President Obama’s idea to get the fiscal cliff agreement,” Scott said. “It’s either his way or no way. He has not demonstrated any compromise toward the majority-led Republican House. He just wants tax increases.”

But Montgomery County Democratic Party Chairman Mark Owens noted that House Republicans voted to approve the mandatory cuts as a “poison pill” to force budget negotiations.

“Where is the House Republican compromise?” he asked. “All they want to do is cut.”

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