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Charles County officials are among those in the state bracing for the impact of looming federal spending cuts set to take effect today.

What effect the $85 billion in cuts — known as sequestration — will ultimately have remains unclear, but it’s expected to be far-reaching and potentially disruptive, especially in Southern Maryland, where a 10 percent cut to the U.S. Department of Defense and furloughs amounting to a 20 percent pay cut for its employees could hit hard at two key economic engines — the Patuxent River Naval Air Station and Naval Surface Warfare Center at Naval Support Facility, Indian Head.

In Maryland, roughly 46,000 civilian DoD employees will be furloughed, constituting a loss of $353.7 million in pay, according to figures released by the White House this week. At Pax River, $9 million in funding for a demolition project and aircraft depot maintenance could be in jeopardy.

“We don’t have a lot of specifics at this time on exactly what budget changes are going to come all the way down to the installation level,” Naval Support Activity South Potomac spokesman Gary Wagner said. “We are going to be dealing with some shortfalls.”

Wagner said it remains unclear how the furloughs will be implemented — whether employees will all take the same day off each week or if they’ll be staggered so as to maintain some level of service five days a week. The command will be able to prioritize and maintain critical on-base services, he added.

“We know it’s going to be a huge budget cut for the Department of Defense,” Wagner said. “Ten percent across-the-board reductions, that’s pretty substantial. But how that all plays out at each individual installation, we don’t have that yet.”

State Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) called the bases the region’s “lifeline,” and said the cuts could result in layoffs and the loss of civilian contracts in addition to furloughs.

“I think it’s going to have a big impact on us,” he said. “I know people at Pax River and [the Indian Head base] that are already making plans for sequestration.”

Middleton said Gov. Martin O’Malley’s (D) proposed budget includes extra money in the state’s rainy day fund to help offset the anticipated budget cuts.

“But the money that’s there is a temporary thing,” he added. “If this thing has a long-reaching impact on the economy, then [the state will] be right back where we were six years ago facing another structural deficit. I’m hoping level heads will prevail and do something by [midnight]. It doesn’t look good right now.”

Charles County Public Schools stands to lose $758,400 — or 8.2 percent of its total federal funding — beginning in the next school year, spokeswoman Katie O’Malley-Simpson said, adding that the cuts could result in the elimination of 6.5 positions in special and adult education.

The Charles County Board of Education recently adopted its annual budget request, which asks that the county make up for the shortfall in federal funds.

O’Malley-Simpson said that if the positions are eliminated, the system wouldn’t necessarily have to fire those employees — annual attrition via retirements or resignations could open up new spots for them to shift into.

But any reduction in teaching positions will likely lead to an increase in classroom sizes, “so there always is an impact,” she added.

Across the state, schools stand to lose $14.4 million in federal funding, putting 200 teaching jobs at risk and providing 800 fewer students with early education services. Funding also would be cut for financial aid programs, job placement and training services, law enforcement and domestic violence grants, children’s vaccines and HIV tests.

During a telephone town hall meeting Monday evening and again in a Tuesday conference call with reporters, U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) described sequestration as a policy that, as part of the 2011 agreement to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, was designed to be irrational in order to force Congress to implement serious budget cuts.

“It’s not a rational process, and it’s just one of the worst policies I’ve seen pursued in my 32 years in government,” he said.

Hoyer voiced support for an alternative proposal offered by U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md., 8th) that aims to reduce the federal deficit by $120 billion through cuts to farm and oil subsidies and tax increases on millionaires, including a mandate that those earning more than $2 million pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes.

But the Republican-controlled House has balked at Democrats’ proposals, refusing to increase taxes in order to avert sequestration.

“I think I’m as frustrated as I’ve been during my time in the Congress of the United States … to see such a willful disregard for operating government in a rational manner,” Hoyer said. “It’s very tough to have faith in government. The Congress is dysfunctional right now in my view.”

jnewman@somdnews.com