published Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Budget battle begins over spending cuts

  • photo
    Chickamauga Lock and Dam / Chickamauga Lake looking northeast.
    Staff File Photo by Dan Henry

President Barack Obama's freeze on discretionary domestic spending next year could keep work on the new Chickamauga lock on ice and leave more Chattanoogans seeking heating or housing assistance out in the cold next winter.

But the White House budget plan for 2012 unveiled Monday could give a boost to high-speed rail service and small nuclear reactors — both projects that could aid Chattanooga and East Tennessee.

The White House delivered a $3.73 trillion budget plan to Congress on Monday that the president said fulfills the first part of his three-year pledge to freeze nonsecurity discretionary funding "to help put our country on a fiscally sustainable path."

Tennessee and Georgia Republicans immediately denounced Obama for failing to do enough to cut the growing $14 trillion national debt in his spending blueprint.

"His budget calls for too much government borrowing — even though debt is already at a level that makes it harder to create private-sector jobs," Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said.

NO NEW LOCK FUNDING

The White House budget includes $3 million for maintenance of the crumbling lock at the Chickamauga Dam, which is suffering from problems with concrete growth. But for the second consecutive year, there is no money for construction on incomplete locks at the Chickamauga and Kentucky dams on the Tennessee River.

"This is a frugal budget," Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, said during a budget briefing.

Darcy said the administration is open to negotiating a new funding formula to help generate more matching funds from the barge industry. Under the current formula, there won't be any funds to restart work on the Chickamauga lock until after the Olmsted Lock and Dam is completed in Ohio by 2014.

That could be too late, according to some proponents of the new lock.

"Every day that goes by the current Chickamauga lock gets in worse condition and the costs of finishing the new lock goes up," said Clive Jones, executive director for the Tennessee River Valley Association.

CUTBACKS IN FEDERAL AID

The president's budget also proposes to cut in half the $5 billion budget for low-income heating assistance and trim federal aid to cities through Community Development Block Grants by 7.5 percent. Such programs, which fund local agencies ranging from Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise to the Chattanooga Homeless Coalition, had been expanded during the first two years of the Obama administration and given even more funds from the $787 billion stimulus package in 2008.

"In a time when unemployment is still stubbornly high, these cuts could leave a lot of people out in the cold," said Landon Howard, co-coordinator for the advocacy group known as Chattanoogans and North Georgians for Economic Rights.

But U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said freezing domestic spending at inflated levels is still too costly for U.S. taxpayers. The Chattanooga Republican is among freshman House members pushing this week for a budget resolution to cut $100 billion from the current fiscal year to help cut what is projected to be a record high budget deficit this year.

OAK RIDGE IMPACT

Such cuts could hurt the biggest recipient of federal spending in East Tennessee — the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Thom Mason, director of the Oak Ridge National Lab, said the House budget plan to trim $100 billion from the current fiscal year, which is already nearly half over, could force the suspension of some programs at ORNL.

The White House and Democratically controlled U.S. Senate are not expected to go along with such cuts, however.

Mason said Obama's proposals for fiscal 2012, if adopted, could help the lab by providing more funds for the type of energy research and small modular nuclear reactor development being pushed in Oak Ridge.

Obama is proposing to spend more on alternative energy sources and an extra $8 billion for high-speed rail lines such as what has been proposed between Chattanooga and Atlanta.

But with the U.S. government approaching the debt limit of $14.29 trillion, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., both called upon the White House to do more to curtail spending.

Chambliss said the cutbacks proposed in Obama's budget "are too small to properly address this country's record-level deficits and outrageous spending."

More: TVA expects to boost debt $962 million in 2012

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