Sen. hopes for 'big fix' to budget crisis
HUNTINGTON -- Sen. Joe Manchin said Friday he will introduce a bill in the U.S. Senate next week aimed at halting the automatic budget cuts that could lead to furloughs and interrupted operations at facilities in the Tri-State.
But the senator, speaking to a small group of airport officials and government leaders at the Huntington Tri-State Airport, also acknowledged that the political atmosphere in Washington is "highly dysfunctional."
"The way it is right now, these Draconian politics are so toxic, it's corrupting common sense," he said. "We have to try to get back on track."
Manchin spent nearly an hour answering questions and offering his support to the business community and the airport itself.
The across-the-board cuts, known as "sequestration," went into effect Friday and are the result of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which mandated $85 million in reductions in both defense and non-defense discretionary programs in this year's federal budget as a means of deficit reduction.
Though airport director Jerry Brienza told board members earlier this week that flights would continue in and out of Huntington, the FAA has indicated tower operations at airports with fewer than 150,000 flights annually would be subject to closure. That puts the Huntington Tri-State Airport on the potential hit list.
"If you lose this airport, the economy here will suffer, and they know that," Manchin said, referring to members of both parties who are at a stalemate on the sequester issue. "If that's a scare tactic, you have my attention. Now, let's go back and fix it."
Manchin said he would return to Washington, D.C., early next week, focused on finding a solution to the current financial crisis.
"There are two ways out of this. The first is a big fix, a big deal with tax reform, where you do it right. The second is to find some flexibility. With the airport, you have to have towers and services and safety that people expect. You have to have certain infrastructure, but the current system is too rigid to allow that," Manchin said, wondering out loud about the flexibility of Airport Improvement Program grants and whether those dollars could be reallocated. "But, I'm for the big fix, and I've been outspoken about that. You can't rob Peter to pay Paul."
The Transportation Security Administration has already notified Tri-State Airport officials it will remove its Advanced Imaging Technology machine on March 24 and transfer it to a larger airport. The scanner makes for quicker processing of passengers, allowing 150 to pass through in about 20 minutes compared with the same volume spread over hours. The airport remodeled its facilities and spent "thousands of dollars" to install and service the equipment in the summer, airport officials said.
Manchin told airport officials Friday he would call Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood personally and voice his displeasure over the move.
"That just doesn't make any sense," he said. "And, I will call LaHood today about it."
Huntington Tri-State Airport Operations Manager Kevin Price told Manchin that tower operators have not yet been notified of potential furloughs. Price also voiced concerns over how the sequester might impact a burgeoning FedEx service that depends on the airport's facilities.
"This FedEx is the only hub in the state. They are a company with the means to pick up and go anywhere else they want," Price said. "It's another very legitimate concern.
"We're holding out hope to see if something happens," Price said. "The sequester will have a huge impact on us, but hopefully the public won't see any of it, and we'll be able to absorb it."
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