Budget negotiations in Congress in the coming days will have a major impact on Robins Air Force Base, even if lawmakers prevent a government shutdown.
The current funding from the federal government expires on December 8th. Without a budget agreement, all non-essential employees at Robins, as well as other federal agencies, would be left home without pay.
The last time this happened was in 2013 when the shutdown lasted from October 1st to October 16th. It affected thousands at Robins, but they eventually received all of their back pay once an agreement was reached.
Dan Rhoades, strategy director for the 21st Century Partnership, was a civilian worker at Robins when the last shutdown took place. He had the savings to make ends meet, so it was essentially a free vacation for him, but others don’t see it that way.
“There’s a lot of people living week to week and paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “To be unemployed and not get that check is pretty devastating.”
For some, that could mean turning to title deposit and payday lenders for high-interest, short-term loans that will ultimately cost them even if they get their paycheck back.
Though sharp disagreements in Washington over the budget have led some to predict a closure is likely, Rhoades doesn’t think so. He said he heard agreement had been reached on a rolling resolution on government funding by December 22.
That means Congress would have to meet during its Christmas break, and that bodes well for Rhoades.
“It’s a way of twisting their arms to make a decision,” he said. “I think that’s pretty good news that the leadership is trying to keep up the pressure to get a solution.”
Continued dissolution means the government will be funded from the same budget as last fiscal year. A budget for the full year is to be approved and signed by the President by October 1, when the fiscal year begins. But for the past nine years, the federal government has operated at least part of the fiscal year under rolling resolution.
That creates significant planning problems, said Col. Lyle Drew, commander of the 78th Air Base Wing in Robins. Even if a shutdown is avoided and the government is funded by a rolling resolution, it would still have a major grassroots impact.
A big problem for Robins, he said, is that the base is increasing its workload this fiscal year and will need to hire about 500 people. But while it’s running under last year’s budget, there’s no money to hire new people — or at least not as many as needed and as quickly as needed.
That means some of the extra planes that come in for the overhaul may have to be idle indefinitely because the base doesn’t have the staff to do the job. Even if the planes are not needed for a mission, the units need the planes to maintain the required training.
This also affects the community. That’s 500 good jobs that aren’t being filled, affecting a wide range of off-base businesses, including real estate, restaurants, and pretty much everything else.
A second major problem for Robins is that about half of the buildings on the base were constructed in the 1940s. Drew has made replacing these a priority, but it’s difficult to start without knowing the funding will be in place. He doesn’t even have all the engineers he needs to fully start the design process.
He compared the situation to what could happen if a commercial airline operated in the same way. If an airline’s budget was not approved, planes could not be serviced, fewer planes would be available to fly, and ticket prices would rise because there would not be enough flights.
“The airlines don’t accept that,” he said. “They have budgets that are on schedule, that are on time, that meet demand. We need the same in the Air Force.”
He also noted that the work done at Robins is related to work at sister maintenance depots, Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma and Hill Air Force Base in Utah. Although each base overhauls different aircraft, each repairs individual components for each other’s aircraft. Therefore, if each base does not have the funds to do the work it needs to do, it will affect the work of all three bases.
And ultimately, Drew said, the entire Air Force.
Of course, he noted, all other branches of the military have the same problem.
“If we are to maintain our national security, we need a budget that is passed on time each year to meet not only our national security needs for today’s threats but also for tomorrow’s threats,” he said. “The budget plays a big role here.”
Budget impasses were more understandable when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress while Democrats held the presidency. So why is there no agreement when Republicans control both?
Rhoades said there are ideological divisions within the Republican Party.
“Trying to get every Republican in the room to agree is difficult,” he said.
This story was originally published Nov 30, 2017 6:45 p.m.