South Carolina’s military bases – not to mention billions of dollars in defense contracts – could take a big hit if another round of cuts to the military occurs in January.
The Pentagon already has announced $487 billion in cuts that experts think will have little effect in South Carolina. But another $600 billion in cuts could be required because of last year’s debt-ceiling standoff in Congress and the failure of a congressional “super committee” to make $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions over the next decade. That failure could trigger automatic cuts – half to the military, half to domestic spending – called “sequestering.”
Last week, Pentagon officials requested from Congress two more rounds of base closings and realignment, called BRAC, in 2013 and 2015, to meet the automatic cuts. BRAC is a meticulous, analytical process that gives military leaders political cover in the highly politicized game of shedding military real estate and reassigning missions to the remaining bases.
The request has the state’s four military communities – Columbia, Sumter, Charleston and Beaufort – bracing for a fight with the rest of the nation and perhaps with each other. The cuts also are a threat to the Upstate, with its $2 billion a year in defense contracts held by companies that supply the military.
“Somebody is going to bleed for his country,” said Ike McLeese, chief executive of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, paraphrasing a famous quote from Gen. George S. Patton. “The trick is to get some other poor bastard to bleed for his country.”
‘We want to keep it’
The $4 billion in direct spending means much more to South Carolina’s economy than the raw dollars. The money rolls around in the economy several times, multiplying its effect as it goes.
Troops buy food, clothes, entertainment and housing. Military installations purchase supplies and materials from local vendors and build facilities using local contractors.
A good example is Fort Jackson:
Studies have shown that Fort Jackson, Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter and McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover pump $7.1 billion a year in total economic impact into the Midlands economy. That’s $1 billion more than the estimated economic impact of Boeing on the Charleston area.
Military installations in and around Charleston add an additional $4.7 billion a year to the state’s economy. And Beaufort’s three installations add $1.2 billion a year.
“At the end of the day there are myriad ways that money gets into the economy,” said S.C. Deputy Secretary of Commerce George Patrick, a retired major general who spent six years as director of the state’s efforts to protect its bases and expand their missions. “And we want to keep it there.”
Is the Pentagon bluffing?
Those economic impact numbers are from a 2004 statewide study, somewhat updated by the local communities. Now, Commerce is conducting a more thorough economic impact study to reflect new developments, such as the Third Army’s move to Sumter from Atlanta.
Commerce hopes to complete that study by the end of the year and turn it over to the S.C. Military Base Task Force, chaired by state Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom. It will be the task force’s job in part to impress upon the state’s congressional delegation – among them four freshman Republican lawmakers who rode the Tea Party’s budget-cutting wave into Congress – the need to preserve those dollars and the jobs they represent.
“What bothers me is not that we have freshmen in Congress,” Patrick said. “What bothers me is that we, as a nation, have very few members of Congress who have served in the military. Many of these decisions are made in a tax-cut and budget sense, and not from a personal dedication to national security.”
Eckstrom said the Pentagon’s call for a 2013 base-closing round is intended to put pressure on Congress to declare whether it is serious about sequestration. No lawmaker wants his or her installation closed.
Barry Rhodes, the city of Columbia’s lobbyist on military matters, added that the Department of Defense also doesn’t want to make those cuts, which he said Pentagon officials have termed “disastrous.”
Both said they doubt a base-closing round could occur by 2013 because time is so short. But 2014 isn’t out of the question.
State slow to react?
Both U.S. Reps. Jim Clyburn, a Democratic member of the failed “super committee” from Columbia, and Joe Wilson, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee from Springdale, doubt the drastic cuts will occur.
“I don’t believe sequestration should take place,” Clyburn said in a statement to The State newspaper. “I prefer targeted cuts to the meat-ax approach. However, South Carolina must be prepared in the event that another round of BRAC takes place. I will leave it up to community leaders to take the reins of those efforts."
Wilson said he will oppose future base closings, oppose sequestering and thinks the $600 billion should be taken out of nonmilitary spending. But he said additional cuts are likely, “even though the debt ceiling is going to have to go up anyway.”
“Now is the time” for South Carolina to prepare for those cuts, Wilson said. “I would hope that the state would have people in place to lead that.”
Gov. Nikki Haley and Eckstrom had been slow to react to the impending cuts.
It took nearly a year for Haley to make her appointments to the Military Base Task Force; she did so in February after inquiries by The State.
Only last week, Eckstrom appointed an executive committee for the task force and called a second, working meeting of the group, after an organizational meeting was held in February. Both were done after inquiries by The State. Eckstrom still hasn’t appointed a successor to Patrick as executive director of the task force.
Haley and Eckstrom say now that a base-closing round is imminent, they are prepared to lead the effort to not only protect the state’s bases but attract new missions as well.
"Not only is the governor ready to work with our federal delegation, Military Base Task Force and (National Guard commanding) Gen. (Bob) Livingston to protect South Carolina military bases from cuts,” Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said in a statement, “she has given the task force the charge to make sure we are ready to welcome any members of the Armed Forces looking for a new home should cuts force them to relocate from other states."
Different areas may be at risk
South Carolina was creamed by the early 1990s round of base closings, losing the Charleston Naval Base and Myrtle Beach Air Force Base. In the 2005 base closings, however, the Midlands fared well, adding new missions for Fort Jackson and McEntire and seeing the Third Army moved to Sumter from Atlanta, resulting in 2,500 new military and civilian jobs.
In the next round of cuts, McEntire and Beaufort Marine Air Station could be at risk. New F-35s for Shaw already have been pushed back, and it is uncertain whether the next-generation jets will land in Sumter.
“We’re now in good shape,” Patrick said. “But, this time, the dynamics and the magnitude will be different. This BRAC will probably be different, and we have to be prepared for that.”