Just when Californians are finally feeling upbeat again about where the state is heading, here comes a fresh downer: The federal sequester, as the automatic cuts are called, set to kick in this week could cost California billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs while making most people's daily lives more difficult.

The state's budget may be balanced and the economy improving, but unless congressional Republicans and President Barack Obama reach a last-minute deal, the federal government on Friday will begin slashing $85 billion from a $3.6 trillion budget over the seven-month period spanning March to September, including 8 percent from the Pentagon and about 5 percent from domestic agency operating budgets.

In California, the cuts will cost the Golden State 225,000 current and future jobs, about $670 million annually in federal grants, plus $3.3 billion in military and defense revenue, lawmakers and experts estimate.

The University of California is anticipating a 5 percent hit to its $3.3 billion federally funded research program as well as its $1.5 billion in U.S. student aid money, on top of federal cuts enacted last year. School districts around the state will also undergo significant cuts.

But that's not all. Airports face more delays. Grocery stores could have less meat thanks to fewer inspections. There will be fewer federal agents in such agencies as the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration, on California's streets.


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You'll wait longer calling 1-800 numbers for agencies like the IRS and Social Security. Fewer Meals on Wheels deliveries will be made.

"We're talking about tremendous, immediate impacts that every single American will experience," said Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach.

"This sends the wrong signal at this moment."

According to Long Beach Airport Director Mario Rodriguez, the effects of the sequester on air travel could be particularly dire, with billions of dollars in productivity lost and bottle-necked commerce.

Rodriguez, speaking at a panel discussion last week, described the airspace above the United States as a "spider web" where 50,000 aircraft are in flight at any given time ferrying passengers and cargo to 499 commercial airports.

Fewer air traffic controllers will reduce that capacity as officials scale back to keep the skies safe, said Rodriguez.

"In other words, they'll take the six-lane highway and turn it into a four-lane highway," he said.

The cuts loom as a Field Poll last week showed that for the first time in six years, a majority of Californians thought the state was on the right track. This year California balanced its budget for the first time since before the Great Recession.

The sequester was planned in 2011 as a backstop in case politicians could not reduce the nation's long-term debt budget by making more prudent cuts and raising revenue, and so far they haven't. In all, the sequester would slice $1.2 trillion off the federal deficit over the next decade.

Many political observers are quick to point out that the proposed cuts, especially those that hit the middle class, were explicitly designed to get politicians to agree to a deal to avert the crisis. The real impact could be lessened, especially if there is public backlash against Congress once the cuts go into effect Friday.

Still, research institutions and universities are expecting less money.

"It's going to be severe," said Gary Falle, UC's associate vice president for federal government relations. "Parents and families are making decisions on where they'll go to school based on where student aid will be.

"As this uncertainty continues, it's pretty hard to make those kinds of decisions."

Local school districts will receive less cash, with the California Department of Education estimating that the federal government will redirect about 5.9 percent of funds. The Long Beach Unified School District received $65.6 million in federal aid this fiscal year, while the Los Angeles Unified School District received $934 million, according to budget documents. 

LBUSD Board of Education President Felton Williams said the cutbacks are more difficult to handle because the district is already five months into its year.

"You're really doubling up with how much damage is being done with the cuts," Williams said.

Lowenthal, a freshman congressman, said the cascading effects of the reductions on all aspects of the economy threaten to blunt hard-earned gains in the job market and consumer purchasing following years of stagnation.

"This is going to have a devastating impact on our recovery," said Lowenthal. "We're potentially running a risk of just stalling again."

A Pew Research Center poll issued last week found that 76 percent of Americans say that Obama and Congress should focus on a combination of spending cuts and tax increases to reduce the budget deficit. Only 19 percent agreed tax hikes should be excluded - the current Republican position.

Another Pew poll released Friday showed that even though Americans may agree cuts should be made, they are far from a consensus on how to do it.

The survey found a majority of those surveyed wanted to either increase spending or maintain it at current levels for 18 of 19 programs that included unemployment aid, scientific research and infrastructure, among others.

The only area that survey-takers even came close to agreement on reductions was aid to the needy overseas, with 48 percent supporting a decrease, 28 percent saying spending should remain the same and 21 percent wanting to raise the amount.

With sequestration looming, Sen. Barbara Boxer and other Democrats blamed the GOP's obstinance on raising taxes for the crisis.

"The American people believe in more efficient government," Boxer said at an event in Los Angeles last week, "but they don't want indiscriminate cuts that hurt our families and threaten our economy."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

mrosenberg@mercurynews.com

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