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Lawmakers worry $85B in sequester cuts would be 'direct hit' to Hudson Valley

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) speaks during a news

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Jan. 15, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

Hudson Valley leaders are nervously hoping President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans reach an agreement to avoid $85 billion in across-the-board federal spending cuts scheduled for March.

Funding for the region's research hospitals, Head Start programs, community health centers, superstorm Sandy aid and the transportation networks are among the many items on the chopping block, they said.

"It is a direct hit," said Rep. Nita Lowey, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. "It will have a severe impact on the economy. It's people. It's jobs."

The cuts, known as a sequester, are a hangover from the agreement reached between Obama and Republicans in January to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, a series of automatic tax increases and spending cuts. Under the deal, the tax hikes were limited to wealthy families and spending cuts were postponed until March.

Lowey and her fellow Democrats on the Appropriations Committee last week issued a report that listed the impact of the sequester on the country. The report doesn't have a comprehensive accounting of the sequester's impact for New York State. But it notes that recently enacted aid for Sandy recovery throughout the region would be cut by almost $1.9 billion.

Lowey said the sequester threatens federal research grants that are scientifically important but also the financial lifeblood of the region's hospitals, especially world-class institutions in New York City and Westchester County, where many Hudson Valley residents work.

"This is not only about the loss of the research," she said. "There are many people in research. If they can't gets grants, they'll go off to someplace else."

The sequester also would cut around $26 million from Head Start in New York, or 5.3 percent of the state's federal appropriation for low-income children in preschool, according to the congressional Democrats' report.

It's foolish to cut that funding when it's becoming increasingly clear that educating children at a young age has a tremendous benefit, the congresswoman said.

"Head Start is so critical," Lowey said. "The reason I support mandatory pre-K is because I look at my grandkids. I read to them. The parents read to them. By the time they get to first grade, they are proficient readers."

Anne Kauffman Nolan, the president of Peekskill-based Hudson River HealthCare, said the sequester could eliminate $1 million from her funding, or more than 14 percent of her budget. She didn't know how she would cope.

Westchester County recently cut $750,000 in aid to the nonprofit organization because of the county's budget problems, Nolan said. The federal cuts also could lead to empty accounts at state agencies that help provide her funding.

"We got hit by the county and now we're going to get hit by the feds," she said. "We're fully expecting to be hit on the state level in the grants area."

The New York City metropolitan region's transportation system also likely would suffer under the sequester, said Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit entity that advocates for mass transit.

Although the Federal Highway Trust Fund receives money from gas taxes, Congress often supplements the fund to pay for important federal highway projects. Any reduction in funding could have ripple effects for highway projects, she said.

"Congress might say they don't have money in the general fund so money can't be transferred to the Highway Trust Fund," Vanterpool said.

Asked whether the sequester might impact the state's application for a long-term, low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Transportation to pay for the proposed $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge, Lowey said she didn't think so. The state is asking for a loan of nearly $2 billion from a program funded by the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or TIFIA.

"It will come through," Lowey said. "We just have to hope these mindless cuts won't have a severe impact on the program. But we'll get that money for the Tappan Zee."

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