State seeks ammunition to fend off military cuts

Study: It would help communities argue against possible base closures

Staff writerSeptember 5, 2012 

Washington lawmakers are taking steps to advocate for steady defense spending at military installations from the South Sound to Spokane in case the Pentagon follows through on an expected proposal to launch another round of base closures in 2015.

The state Office of Financial Management is seeking bids for a company to study Washington’s military resources and create a report that communities could use if they find their local bases on the chopping block.

The state is willing to pay up to $300,000 for the report. It wants a quick turnaround, and is aiming to have the winning contractor start work by Oct. 9.

Lawmakers aren’t saying they’re afraid the state will lose out as the Pentagon gets serious about slashing its budget. But they are saying they need to be prepared.

“As the military shifts, we want to put the best foot forward for the state of Washington,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. “We want a study to show here’s how we want to maintain the bases and personnel we have, and maybe gain some more.”

The Pentagon is cutting at least $487 billion in projected spending over the next 10 years. The size of the Army is expected to fall to 490,000 soldiers from 562,000. The Marine Corps is to shrink by 20,000 Marines to 182,000.

More cuts are expected, but it’s not clear when or how they might be adopted.

In 2009, Washington state’s military payroll topped $7.9 billion with more than 103,000 military and civilian personnel employed at Defense Department installations, according to a study by the Washington Economic Development Commission.

Smith attended the first meeting of the Washington Military Alliance on Aug. 24, which brought together Gov. Chris Gregoire, congressmen, several state lawmakers and representatives from regional advocacy groups that lobby for defense spending in their own communities.

This time, the governor wants the different groups to support each other. They include economic development teams from Pierce and Thurston counties near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Spokane near Fairchild Air Force Base, and Navy communities from Whidbey Island to Bremerton to Everett.

“It’s an opportunity to make sure Washington is in the best position as the Defense Department starts making budget decisions,” said John Lane, an executive adviser to Gregoire on military issues.

Jason Mercier, director of the Washington Policy Center’s government reform center, was troubled that a public notice for the initial military alliance meeting was not published before the Aug. 24 session.

He characterized the alliance as a group of elected and government officials who were planning to spend state money to influence the Pentagon’s decisions.

He watches the state budget closely and first learned of the military alliance and the spending on the study when the Office of Financial Management published its request for bids.

“Nobody’s done anything wrong on this because the money’s been appropriated and the governor has the authority to form committees she wants,” Mercier said. “But, because you have a quarter million dollars going to lobby the federal government, you want to have some public notification.”

The military alliance meetings won’t be closed to the public in the future, but it’s not yet clear whether they’ll be advertised.

Washington state fared well in the last round of the Base Closure and Realignment Committee (BRAC) process. Lewis-McChord owes its new life as a joint Army-Air Force base to a 2005 BRAC recommendation to combine 26 military installations into 12 joint bases. The merger happened in 2010, and Lewis-McChord is now the third-largest military installation in the U.S.

Smith and other lawmakers on defense committees have said Washington has a strong hand going into probable budget cuts. The Pentagon intends to place a greater emphasis on Pacific threats in coming years, and Washington is well positioned geographically to support that goal.

A new Pentagon-commissioned report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests Army units at Lewis-McChord would participate in frequent exercises with Asian allies and possibly undertake regular deployments to bolster units stationed in South Korea.

Last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited a Bremerton-based aircraft carrier and said the Puget Sound’s Navy assets would prove valuable in supporting Pacific operations.

“Through the luck of geography, our state is in position to play an important role in power projection” across the Pacific, said Dan Penrose, program manager of the South Sound Military & Communities Partnership.

Nonetheless, defense industry representatives and local government leaders are starting to voice anxiety about how military budget cuts could impact their communities.

Lakewood Mayor Doug Richardson in August mentioned a round of base closures was on his mind when he met with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray at a South Sound Military and Communities meeting.

Lewis-McChord planners, meanwhile, are taking stock of their assets for reports on growth projections. In a July interview, former Lewis-McChord garrison commander Col. Thomas Brittain said it’s possible that process could show room for more units at the base east of Olympia.

The region could be in line for growth if the Defense Department chooses to reduce its footprint in the Atlantic, Midwest or at permanent bases overseas.

Since 2003, Lewis-McChord added about 15,000 active-duty soldiers, including a new helicopter brigade, a full artillery brigade and a third infantry brigade.

adam.ashton@ 253-597-8646

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