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Inslee asks committee to prepare for worst-case JBLM cuts

Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday charged a new committee to prepare programs to help troops and civilian workers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord for what many consider to be inevitable cuts at Pierce County’s largest employer.

“I think about the individuals that have stood post in Anbar province (in Iraq) and in the heights of Afghanistan. These are people who are going to need us in coming months by the thousands,” Inslee said.

He’s anticipating an announcement from the Army next week that will describe how many positions it plans to shed from JBLM. The base’s share could be as many as 11,000 positions in a wave of force reductions that will unfold unless Congress repeals the forced federal budget cuts known as sequestration.

Inslee announced his plans for the military downsizing committee earlier this month. It brings together several state agency directors who oversee education, job-training and economic development departments. On Wednesday, he asked the committee to write initial response plans within the next two weeks.

The committee builds on previous programs Inslee has coordinated since the Army’s post-Iraq War force reductions gained momentum two years ago, such as a Military Transition Council that focuses on finding civilian careers for veterans.

JBLM already has lost about 7,000 positions for active-duty soldiers since its peak strength of 34,000 active-duty soldiers in 2011.

JBLM and the state are regarded as innovators in their approaches to connecting veterans with civilian careers. Programs at JBLM offer pathways to careers with Microsoft, Starbucks and various construction trades, as well as more general job-training courses that lead to work with employers in the Puget Sound region. The Army has replicated those programs at other posts around the country.

Inslee asked the committee to consider a broader group of people who may lose work at JBLM, such as civilian employees. The committee also may look for ways to assist private companies that could lose military contracts.

“This is going to require a targeted approach” to help veterans and laid-off civilian workers with varied backgrounds, Washington state Department of Veterans Affairs Director Lourdes Alvarado Ramos said.

The overall value of defense contracts in Washington state has held steady between $7 billion and $9 billion a year since 2012, mostly because of rising spending on new Air Force and Navy jets that Boeing manufactures here. Inslee and others are concerned that potential budget cuts will hurt smaller companies in the region that do busines with the military.

“The Defense Department drives an entire economy,” he said. “It’s not just the big-ticket hardware.”

State officials characterized the potential cuts at JBLM as the equivalent of a historic layoff notice from a large private employer.

“It’s hard to imagine anywhere in the private sector or any one closure affecting this many jobs. We’re talking 6,000 to 11,000 jobs,” Commerce Department Director Brian Bonlender said.

The Army has about 490,000 active-duty soldiers. That number could fall to as few as 420,000 unless Congress repeals sequestration, Defense Department officials have said. In 2011, the Army had about 570,000 active-duty soldiers.

The announcement expected to come next week would describe where the Army would reduce its forces at domestic posts if it is compelled to cut another 70,000 active-duty soldiers.

The Army will not confirm that it is making a force-reduction announcement, but military officials in recent weeks have been advising congressional staff and local government leaders that a decision is coming.

More than 40,000 military service members are stationed at JBLM. The base also employs more than 15,000 civilians and contractors.

Elsewhere in Washington state, Navy bases are considered to be steady or growing with the addition of new aircraft and ships. Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane has not yet been selected to replace its fleet of aging KC-135 refueling tankers with the next generation of that aircraft.

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