WASHINGTON — Arkansas labor leaders urged the state’s congressional delegation Wednesday to keep education and social welfare programs off the chopping block.
"We’ve already been cut too much," said Donna Morey, president of the Arkansas Education Association.
As Congress considers how to avoid a year-end "fiscal cliff" that would include massive across-the-board cuts to discretionary spending, labor groups from across the nation were lobbying Capitol Hill on Wednesday to look elsewhere for ways to reduce the federal deficit.
Morey said that in 2011 Congress agreed to $1.7 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade that are coming out of programs vital to Arkansas families.
Because Congress failed to approve a plan to reduce the deficit by another $1.2 trillion, the budget faces automatic across-the-board cuts in a process known as sequestration. Most programs would be cut by 8.2 percent, according to Office of Management and Budget estimates.
In Arkansas, that would mean a loss of $12.7 million in federal Title I grants, $9.2 million in special education grants and $6.2 million in Head Start.
"Kids don’t get a second chance at first grade," Morey said. "The only way Arkansas is going to improve its economy is through a more educated population."
Arkansas AFL-CIO President Alan Hughes also made the rounds pushing a similar message members of the state’s congressional delegation.
"Our concerns are about Medicare and Medicaid," Hughes said. "So many Arkansas people use it."
Along with the automatic spending cuts that would go into effect at the end of the year, a host of Bush-era tax breaks are also set to expire. Republicans want to restore all of the breaks while Democrats would allow only those for the wealthiest 2 percent to expire. The additional revenue would go to offset budget cuts.
Hughes favors the Democrats’ approach.
Morey and Hughes left meetings with U.S. Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and John Boozman, R-Ark., encouraged that the lawmakers understood their concerns.
"I think we are making some progress," Morey said.
Boozman said most members of Congress agree that they should keep tax breaks for the middle class and avoid across-the-board spending cuts.
"I’d like to see this thing settled tomorrow," Boozman said.
The struggle, however, is in reaching a final agreement that will close the deficit.
"I’m optimistic we will get something done," Pryor said. "But reforms that we need to do will take time."
Pryor said he is getting some push back from Arkansans over his support for the Simpson-Bowles proposal that Congress rejected in 2010, which led to sequestration.
The proposal, named after the chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, recommended reforms to entitlement programs, spending cuts and tax increases as a balanced approach to reducing the deficit.
"I tell folks I want to protect seniors, protect the middle class and protect national security. I’m not for every single line of Simpson-Bowles," Pryor said.
Pryor said he supports the framework to restructure entitlements, reform the tax code and reduce government spending. The details need to be hashed out, he said.
"Put everything on the table and work through these issues. Let’s find the things we can support," he said.