Columbia — A task force appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley to protect and promote the state’s military bases plans to survey each member of the S.C. congressional delegation to see where they stand on huge, automatic cuts to the military required by last year’s debt ceiling fight.
Military boosters want the delegation to present a united front in an attempt to preserve billions of dollars at stake in South Carolina’s economy if the cuts go through as planned.
Called sequestration, the $600 billion in automatic cuts — cuts the Pentagon has said would be crippling — are set for Jan. 2 unless Congress finds another way to reduce the budget. The same amount of automatic cuts would occur in domestic spending.
It’s a prospect that threatens the estimated $16 billion the military pumps into the state’s economy every year and already has some aerospace and defense firms such as Boeing delaying hiring new employees or laying people off.
Haley met with the commanders of the state’s military installations on Wednesday — an annual meeting intended to exchange information on how the state can support its bases, such as Fort Jackson, Shaw Air Force Base, Joint Base Charleston and Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station. Sequestration was high among the topics of conversation.
“The last thing we need to be doing is cutting any kind of military funding,” she said in a telephone interview with The State after the meeting. “The commanders are right: We need … to make sure our delegation speaks with one voice.”
Members of the S.C. Military Base Task Force, in a separate meeting Wednesday afternoon, voted to have executive coordinator William “Dutch” Holland send a questionnaire to the chiefs of staff of each member of the state’s congressional delegation asking for their positions. Then Holland — a retired two-star general and former commander of Ninth Air Force based at Shaw — would request a face-to-face meeting to expand on the questionnaire.
“That way it becomes an exchange rather than a questionnaire,” he said.
The task force is made up of representatives of the state’s four military communities — Columbia, Sumter, Charleston and Beaufort — as well as the S.C. National Guard and the S.C. Department of Commerce. It is chaired by S.C. Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, who also serves as commander of the S.C. State Guard.
Task force members said they would like to see the delegation take a stand on the issue before Congress comes back into session in September. After that, they said, the members’ attention likely would be on the upcoming election with potentially another debt ceiling fight on the horizon and the cuts looming.
“Somebody is going to have to give in this tug of war or this thing is going down,” said Steve Creech, who was mayor of Sumter for 12 years and now heads the Sumter Military Affairs Committee.
The tug of war began last August when House Republicans, fueled by newly elected, Tea Party-backed members, called a stand-off over raising the nation’s debt ceiling. President Obama then appointed a congressional “super committee” to identify $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions — half to the military, half to “non-mandated” domestic spending — which it failed to do.
The Pentagon already has implemented $487 billion in cuts to 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 devastating to the military, officials have said.
Haley didn’t offer any solutions to sequestration issue — “we’re not ready to have that conversation yet,” she said — but she said she is working closely with U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on the issue. Graham last month conducted a statewide press tour to help make the public aware of the sequestration issue and to urge local governments to press their representatives in Congress to oppose the automatic cuts.
In addition to working with Graham, Haley said she would be willing to assist any member of the delegation on the issue when asked.
“With our military bases, we can’t afford to lose any military funding,” she said.