Sequestered in Las Vegas

In the early days of the Great Recession, Las Vegans learned the importance of calling ahead. More than a few of us have stories about arriving at a longtime retailer or restaurant’s door only to find it closed for good. If you listen to the congressional budget debate these days, you may envision these types of situations happening again soon, but on the government-services front.

We’re speaking, of course, of the much-feared “sequester,” a 10-year, $1.2 trillion across-the-board federal spending cut scheduled to take effect March 1. About $85 billion of those cuts would be felt this year. Locally, Nellis Air Force Base officials have said they will likely cancel some Red Flag air-combat training exercises. State librarian Daphne DeLeon expects a hit of at least 8 percent to the $1.6 million in annual federal funds she sees. All government health and human services agencies will likely see single-digit cuts.

Then there’s March 27, the date by which Congress must pass an appropriations bill to allow the federal government to be funded through the end of the year. Under the continuing resolution signed in September, the federal government is only paid for through the first six months of 2013. Talk of a government shutdown is in the air.

The sequester clock was set in motion in 2011 as part of that year’s debt-ceiling debate; it was supposed to be the kind of draconian threat that forces everyone into constructive deal-making. It failed, and now cuts that were supposed to be merely frightening are instead frighteningly real. The political stalemate in a nation with $16.4 trillion in debt and no plan to reverse the trend can be summarized this way: Democrats want to cut sparingly and raise more revenue through tax increases and loophole closures. Republicans prefer to cut more non-defense related services and avoid raising taxes at all.

One looming question that concerns Stephen Brown, UNLV’s head of the Center for Business and Economic Research, is the effect sharply reduced government spending would have on the private sector and the economy as a whole.

In the fourth quarter of 2012, the Gross Domestic Product endured its first drop in a while, partly because of reduced government spending. Such spending makes up about 40 percent of the GDP, a share that has been increasing since the end of World War II, when it was about 20 percent. In short, the government is the consumer with the biggest wallet in our precarious economy—and Brown says the sequester cuts will affect us all as consumer spending decreases.

For now, Brown is confident that 11th-hour drama, finger-pointing and some more can-kicking down the road will lead to more modest cuts.

But you may want to call ahead anyway.