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Is the sequester putting you at risk?

With between a 5 percent and 8 percent cut in non-entitlement federal spending in effect since March 1, Americans might wonder whether the spending limits, known as the sequester, are jeopardizing their safety when it comes to the risks of nuclear power plants, federal inmates, and other dangers that the federal government is responsible for warding off.

One month in, it appears to be a mixed picture – in some agencies, there doesn’t appear to be any increase in risk right now. But in others – such as the federal courts – there may be.

Here is a look at the spending cuts’ effects on just a few federal departments and agencies that deal with issues of public safety.

Spokesman Jay Carney engages in a discussion with members of the press over whether U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano's warnings about sequestration were overblown.

Trucks and buses
Let’s start with the safety of the highways on which you drive to work or visit your family. An unsafe big rig or bus could prematurely end your journey. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which has 1,100 employees and is part of the Department of Transportation, has the job of making sure that large trucks and buses operate safely.

Just last week, for example, the FMCSA ordered Boston-based Fung Wah Bus Transportation, to cease all passenger operations. According to the agency, Fung Wah failed to repair its vehicles, falsified inspection records and failed to ensure its drivers were qualified and complied with hours-of-service regulations.

Department of Transportation spokesman Justin Nisly said that FMCSA is primarily funded by the Highway Trust Fund, which collects its money from taxes on gasoline and other fuels, so only about $1 million of the agency’s $570 million budget is subject to sequestration. 

The FMCSA, he said, is “confident that normal workflow of services, functions and daily activities will not be disrupted. FMCSA continues to work aggressively to keep unsafe companies, vehicles and drivers off the road.”

The Senate has approved a $3.7 trillion budget, but there are still some victims of the sequester. In two weeks, 38 states will see control tower shutdowns at several airports across the country. NBC's Pete Williams reports.

No FMCSA employees will be furloughed because of the sequester and the FMCSA has not implemented a hiring freeze.

The lesson here is that agencies such as FMCSA which are not funded by annual congressional appropriations but have other sources of funding will carry on despite the sequester. Another example is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is funded through the earnings of the Federal Reserve and not subject to congressional appropriations.

Nuclear power plants
The 3,800 employees of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) are the ones who inspect America’s nuclear power plants and ensure they pose no threat to the surrounding communities. The nuclear regulator is managing to keep doing its job and will even be hiring new employees, despite the spending cuts. There are 103 licensed nuclear power reactors at 64 sites in the United States.

“NRC safety and security inspections of licensed facilities are not impacted by the FY 2013 planned budget reductions,” said Holly Harrington, a senior adviser at the NRC’s Office of Public Affairs. “The NRC will continue to accomplish its core safety and security mission for all existing licensees as its highest priority. This includes reactors, materials users, fuel facilities, uranium recovery operations and waste facility licensees.”

NRC Executive Director for Operations Bill Borchardt told the NRC’s March 13 Regulatory Information Conference that a 5 percent spending cut had gone into effect on March 1, resulting in a reduction of $52 million in the NRC’s funding for the rest of FY 2013. He said the effects of the cuts will include elimination of an NRC program that gives grants to universities and minority-serving institutions, reductions in several NRC long-term research activities, and delays in staff training. 

But the agency will “be able to continue its safety and security mission for existing licensees, including new reactor and fuel-cycle facility construction activities.”

He said, “We do not plan on initiating any employee furlough actions due to the sequestration.” NRC staffing peaked in 2011 with just over 4,000 employees, he said, and the agency began this year with about 3,800. “Even with the tight fiscal constraints, just to make up for attrition, we expect to hire approximately 2,200 new employees,” Borchardt said. 

Harrington said that as part of its strategy for mitigating the impacts of the reduced budget, the NRC will ask Congress if it can “reprogram” funds, allowing it to use $38 million in unobligated prior-year funds for FY 2013 purposes.  The $38 million in funds “were recovered from completed contracts issued in previous years.”

Another lesson here for sequester budgeting: some agencies have unexpended money in their accounts and can better weather the sequester than agencies which don’t.

Courts and prisoners
In a March 22 letter to Justice Department employees, which was obtained by NBC News, Attorney General Eric Holder said that despite the $1.6 billion spending cut imposed on the bureau, “our actions must not threaten the life and safety-related operations of the department.”

Holder said he was using his authority to transfer funds so he could provide $150 million to the Bureau of Prisons to avoid furloughs of workers at the 119 federal prison facilities around the country. If he had not done this, Holder said, “We faced the need to furlough 3,570 staff each day from the federal prisons around the country.”

Meanwhile in the federal courts, federal appeals court Judge Julia Gibbons, chair of the budget committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, told a House subcommittee on March 20 that “sequestration will impact public safety because there will be fewer probation officers to supervise criminal offenders released in our communities, and funding for drug testing and mental health treatment will be cut 20 percent.”

She said there will be a 30 percent cut in funding for court security equipment and security officers will be required to work reduced hours “thus creating security vulnerabilities throughout the federal court system.”

Around the country federal trial courts have begun not scheduling criminal trials and hearings on Fridays.

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