By STEPHEN SINGER, Associated Press
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Less than seven years after local and state officials, business owners and civic groups beat back recommendations to shut a submarine base in Connecticut, the Obama administration has again raised the specter of base closings.
President Barack Obama will ask Congress to approve a new round of domestic base closures, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday, although the timing was left vague and there is little chance lawmakers would agree to it in a presidential election year.
Connecticut Rep. Joe Courtney and Sens. Joe Lieberman and Richard Blumenthal, who are members of the House and Senate armed services committees, said in a news release that the proposal has drawn bipartisan opposition and would be “dead on arrival.”
Courtney, whose district is home to the submarine base in Groton, called it a weak proposal because the administration did not include the cost of closing bases, which he said is enormous. In an interview Friday, he said residents have been nervous for years, “convinced that it’s only a matter of time” before the issue of base closings returns.
In addition, Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire quickly defended the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. The four lawmakers said another round of base closings doesn’t make sense in advancing national security or saving money.
The Base Closure and Realignment Commission rejected a Pentagon recommendation in 2005 to shut the base. The decision came after state and local elected officials, businesses, civic groups and others quickly formed a coalition to beat back the proposed shutdown. The base also had been targeted in 1993.
A lot is at stake. Robert Ross, executive director of the state Office of Military Affairs, said the sub base pumps $4.5 billion a year into the economy in salaries and spending for everything from office supplies to gas. At least 15,000 jobs are tied to the operation of the base, he said.
He said he is always concerned about the base’s future. “There are no guarantees when you’re dealing with BRAC,” Ross said.
Tony Sheridan, president and chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said businesses are “always anxious about this.”
“We’ve lived through several base closing attempts,” he said. “Needless to say, you don’t take it for granted. When we hear about a base closing it gets our attention.”
The Government Accountability Office said the BRAC Commission estimate of $21 billion cost over the six years to shut bases increased to $35 billion. Courtney and the senators from Connecticut, Maine and New Hampshire cited that dollar amount as they criticized talk of a new round of closings.
“The net savings was so weak you have to scratch your head,” Courtney said. “How serious is this?”
Shaheen said lawmakers don’t know that another round of base closings will save money and as a result, the suggestion is premature.
“I’d be surprised if we see anything in 2013 but we need to be vigilant,” she said.
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which Shaheen says employs 5,000 workers from Maine and New Hampshire, was spared in the last round of base closings. Brunswick Naval Air Station was shut.
Sheridan said the high cost to close bases could help save Connecticut’s sub base.
“I’m deriving some comfort from the fact that this is a situation where they’re trying to save money,” he said. “The results so far from closing bases is dismal.”
Sheridan also said he was encouraged by a visit by Panetta in November to Electric Boat, the General Dynamics Corp. subsidiary in Groton that manufactures submarines. Panetta said the United States must protect its military industrial base and said he was extremely reluctant to impose more cuts if a congressional panel failed to agree on a deficit-trimming plan.
Supporters of the Connecticut base also point to tens of millions of dollars that have been spent in the last few years to improve operations. Lieberman and Courtney say they brought about $85 million in military construction projects for a submarine learning center, an indoor firing range and other improvements.
The state also has spent $11 million to install an energy-efficient boiler, a building extension for a submarine bridge simulator and other changes, Ross said.
Still, he said Connecticut can never be certain the base will be permanent.
“I’m always concerned,” he said. “There are no guarantees when you’re dealing with BRAC.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)