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Federal spending cuts coming to Illinois — but where, when?

(MCT) — Barring an unlikely last-minute intervention from Congress, billions in federal spending cuts that were first threatened in 2011 are scheduled to begin Friday.

But despite the political drama that has surrounded the so-called sequester, local officials say they have little clue when and how Illinoisans might start to feel the effects of the cuts.

"It's not that we didn't know it was coming, but as far as how the federal government is going to roll it out, we don't have a whole lot of details," said Melaney Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Arnold said her department knew little more than what had been outlined in White House talking points that were released over the weekend.

The state stands to lose $357,000 for child vaccinations, $186,000 for HIV testing and $968,000 for public health threat response, according to the document, which identified cuts that would affect the state this year. But even those figures were confusing, Arnold said, because it was unclear how they were calculated and how they would be implemented. By Thursday afternoon, the department was still waiting for guidance from Washington.

Even the extent of the sequester was unclear.

"Is it a 5 percent or an 8 percent cut or something?" asked Barry Anderson of the National Governors Association. "We don't know yet."

Some estimates had pinned the across-the-board cut at 5 percent for domestic programs and 8 percent for defense spending. Also still unknown is which projects, programs and activities would be on the chopping block.

Allen Sanderson, an economist at the University of Chicago, said the whole ordeal is a "nuisance more than anything." He predicted that lawmakers in Washington will find some way around the cuts by March 27, when the federal government is expected to run out of money.

"Put on some classical music or heavy metal," he said. "Just don't listen to this stuff. It's a waste of time."

President Barack Obama will host congressional leaders at the White House on Friday, a last-minute opportunity to avert the cuts. In the meantime, local officials must plan for the worst.

"It's not like they can wait until Aug. 31 to plan for the opening of school," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Wednesday.

Illinois public schools could lose $36.4 million in Title I funding for about 42,116 students, according to the Education Department. Chicago Public Schools alone would lose more than $9.6 million. In addition, the state would lose about $24.7 million in funding for teachers and staff who help children with disabilities, according to White House estimates.

Local officials generally agreed that if the cuts went through, they would not be felt overnight.

For example, delays at airports wouldn't be felt until April, after staffing cuts take effect.

Then, large airports like O'Hare International could see delays of up to 90 minutes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. That's on top of other delays that are expected because of cuts in security screening staff.

At O'Hare, the sequester also could cause occasional closing of a control tower and an arrival runway, which air traffic controllers say could delay arrivals by an average of 44 minutes per flight. Closing five Illinois airport towers also would be considered, in addition to cutting overnight departures at Midway Airport.

Some of the expected cuts would be less painful than others.

Naval Station Great Lakes in North Chicago would have to halt a $2 million in projects that involve demolishing "obsolete infrastructure" that is not a safety concern, Navy spokesman Bill Couch said. Cuts to maintenance funds at naval bases across Illinois could lead to a "fix something when it breaks" mentality, he said.

At the same time, furloughs could reduce pay for 14,000 civilian military employees in Illinois by $83.5 million, and an additional $28 million would be cut from Army, Air Force and Navy operations in the state, according to the White House.

At Scott Air Force Base in southern Illinois, 4,500 workers could be required to take a day off every week until the end of the fiscal year in September, said Karen Petitt, spokeswoman for the 375th Air Mobility Wing.

Superintendents who oversee many of the country's national parks are waiting to hear whether they'll have to furlough their permanent staff. Other parts of the picture are more clear.

At the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, the sequester means that Superintendent Dale Phillips won't have the money to hire about 10 summer workers who help run tours of the home. The number of daily tours would be cut in half, from 30 to 15, he said.

Aside from defense spending, no part of the federal budget would take a bigger hit than health care — a major concern to Chicagoland health systems, doctors and community health providers.

Under the sequester, government payments to health care providers would be slashed by 2 percent for treating patients covered by Medicare. Hospitals in Illinois would forgo about $142 million in Medicare reimbursement for the remainder of 2013, according to data provided by the Illinois Hospital Association.

The cuts also would hit community health providers like the Erie Health Center, which has 13 clinics in Chicagoland and serves about 43,000 patients a year, a majority of whom are either uninsured or covered through government insurance programs. About 22 percent of Erie's budget comes from federal grants.

The cuts triggered by sequestration "could be a real hit for the people who are the most vulnerable," said Erie's chief executive, Dr. Lee Francis.

Jonathan Lavin, chief executive officer of AgeOptions, a nonprofit organization that helps administer state and federal assistance programs for seniors in suburban Cook County, estimates that more than 900 seniors in the area could be denied subsidized meals because of cuts to nutrition assistance funding. Even if the terms of sequestration were more defined, planning for the cuts still would be hard, he said.

"What kind of plan do you develop to tell people that they can't have something so simple and so effective and so basic?" Lavin said.

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