Colo. Springs battling to maintain defense budget

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Colorado Springs defense companies are on the offensive, battling cuts to the Department of Defense budget that could reach $600 billion.

That’s in addition to the $350 billion cut already enacted by Congress earlier this year. Many national and local leaders say the industry can’t survive more cuts.

So they’re fighting back.

The Aerospace Industry Association has launched a national campaign, “Second to None,” to explain the importance of defense contracting to the economy. The industry, according to the campaign, supports 1 million direct jobs and 2.9 million secondary jobs.

The Springs is waging its own war against the defense cuts. The combat, based on words and influence, is trying to save an industry forged with satellites and rockets.

Brian Binn, Chamber of Commerce military affairs president, and a coalition of regional leaders have been to Washington, D.C. twice this month to let the Colorado delegation know how important the military — and the private defense contractors — are to the local economy.

No other city in the country has the same concentration of military bases — Fort Carson, Schriever Air Force Base, Peterson Air Force Base, Cheyenne Mountain Air Station, the Air Force Academy. Together, the bases provide more than 21 percent of the total jobs in the Springs.

That’s why the Springs’ leaders are understandably nervous about the work of the Congressional super-committee, tasked with deciding $1.2 trillion in cuts to the federal government. Meeting for a matter of weeks, the committee is already having trouble reaching a consensus. If they can’t agree, the defense department will take on half those cuts automatically.

Cuts that deep would cripple the Colorado Springs economy, so business leaders are lobbying to keep U.S. Space Command, U.S. Northern Command, the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

“We as a state, federal delegation need to keep the missions here,” he said. “That’s what we told them — that it’s about the quality of life; it’s about economic conditions for the entire state.”

However, it’s too early to panic, he said.

“We have some very important missions here, so we’re pretty confident about keeping them,” he said. “But we’re not so confident that we aren’t worried. We’re talking with them (Congress) every chance we get.”

Binn had another chance this week, during the annual Chamber of Commerce trip to Washington, D.C. It was an opportunity that didn’t go wasted, as the Springs group also met with top Pentagon officials. The relationship between the Pentagon and Colorado hasn’t always been cozy, when Colorado ranchers fought expanding Pinon Canon Maneuver site several years ago. But it’s warmed since then.

“We’re just taking the same message: This is part of the economy we can’t afford to lose,” Binn said.

The city’s unemployment rate is higher than the national average, and city leaders say they want to diversify the local economy. But Binn says the city can’t afford to lose its military presence, nor the defense contractors that automatically follow the missions.

The Springs is home to the big guys — Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman — but it’s also home to small, locally owned businesses that cater to defense needs.

“Those are the companies that might not be able to weather a cut,” Binn said. “The larger firms are diverse enough they can ride out a storm. But the local companies, they could face trouble.”

For now, however, defense companies large and small are standing firm, waiting to see what the super-committee brings to Congress at the end of the year.

And they have options, Binn said.

“Their best bet is to find primary contractors looking for smaller companies,” he said. “And companies run by disabled veterans, women or other minority groups get a certain advantage in federal contracting, so that’s the way to find jobs.”

The budget crisis hasn’t slowed federal contracting, said Tom Elam, executive director of the Colorado Procurement Technical Assistant Center. The nation is currently operating on a continuing resolution that keeps spending at the same level as 2010, he said.

“I imagine we’ll be on a CR for most of this year as well,” he said. “It’s a way to keep government running. We’re not seeing any slowdown in contracting, and we’re definitely not seeing any slowdown in companies interested in working for the federal government. “

In the two years that the PTAC has been open, it has brought more than $249 million in government contracts to El Paso County and a total of $549 million to the state. It has helped 1,700 clients get government contracts.

But Elam is keeping an eye on the news from D.C. He says his clients are hoping for the best. He isn’t alone.

The city’s federal lobbyist, hired by a public-private partnership, is also worried about what further budget cuts could do the local faltering economy.

“Now isn’t a good time for more cuts,” said Elise Pickering, who started working for the Springs in February. “It just isn’t. And we’re meeting with the Colorado delegation to let them know this isn’t a problem just for Colorado Springs. It’s a problem for the state.”

That’s because, along with Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, the military brings 73,000 jobs to Colorado, with an economic impact of more than $6.5 billion.

Pickering is worried, and says there’s a lot to worry about — including partisan bickering.

“It’s ugly out there,” she said. “It’s the ugliest I’ve ever seen it.”

Early reports from the super committee are that the two sides are wrestling with the cuts, and refuse to compromise.

“Democrats want revenue; Republican’s are anti-revenue,” she said. “Entitlements are untouchable. That means that cuts have to come from somewhere, and some say defense is the place.”

And she isn’t sure if a compromise can be reached.

“The Pollyanna side of me still has hope, but the cynical side? That’s a different story,” she said.

Still, it’s not time to surrender.

“If, in a few weeks, the headlines are the same, then I’ll be a lot more worried,” she said. “I thought the government was going to shut down last year, and they reached an agreement. I thought that the debt ceiling debate wouldn’t go on as long as it did — or get so ugly. But, eventually, there was agreement. I think we’ll have agreement again — but not before there’s food all over the walls from the political food fight.”