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Angels' plight shows complexity of budget battle

With Congress showing no signs of pulling out of its nosedive over the next fiscal precipice, people are starting to sort out exactly what will happen if the automatic budget cuts are triggered on March 1.

Among the items on the federal sequestration hit list is a Pentagon program that spends tens of millions of dollars a year on recruitment and “goodwill” for a couple branches of the military.

Sounds like a classic pork-barrel project ripe for slashing, right? Well, not so fast. One community’s pork may be another town’s gravy.

The line-item in question pays for the Navy’s Blue Angels, who, for more than six decades, have been dazzling audiences around the world — including Oregon — with their aerial acrobatics.

The Navy isn’t alone. The Air Force has its Thunderbirds (with a similar pricetag) and the Army has its Golden Knights.

The Pentagon uses these highly trained military men and women to promote the various branches of the service, sending them to air shows and other public gatherings around the country where, for a nominal performance fee, they draw tens of thousands of people.

But the Blue Angels are the biggest draw of them all and one of their scheduled stops this year is the Oregon International Air Show, where organizers are so pumped by the return of the squadron’s F/A-18 fighter jets (they were here in 2007) that they mention them in the show’s recorded phone message.

Air show president Judy Willey says she’s optimistic that even if the automatic cuts are triggered on March 1, Congress will be able to restore some of the programs well before Hillsboro hosts the show in late July. And, even if the Angels are grounded, the show — a signature event for the region — will go on.

But the larger question remains: Should the Blue Angels (and Thunderbirds and Golden Knights) be spared the budget axe?

One the one hand, military officials say their stunt pilots and jumpers are a key recruiting tool, but the Navy can’t offer any specific numbers about how many men and women sign up after seeing the blue and gold jets perform breathtaking maneuvers overhead.

On the other hand, we know that the squadrons do have some recruitment value. What’s less often discussed is that many of the six dozen shows that book the Blue Angels each year are community events which have tangible and intangible value.

The Oregon Air Show (which is set to pay $12,000 for the Blue Angels this year) raises money for charity. After last year’s show, which featured the Thunderbirds, more than 50 non-profit groups, including the Hillsboro Community Foundation, Bag&Baggage Productions, the Hillsboro Tuesday Marketplace, the Washington County Museum and the Hillsboro Library Foundation, shared in $78,000 of Air Show grants.

So, is the public well-served by its $20 million-a-year investment in the Blue Angels?

We’ll leave that up to members of Congress, who — thanks to sequestration — are looking at more than a half-trillion dollars in Pentagon budget cuts over the next 10 years, matched by the same cuts to domestic programs.

After years of putting off tough decisions about spending on popular programs, Congress now may be forced to actually debate their merits.

We’d love to see the Blue Angels streak across the Washington County sky this summer. We also, however, now have a better sense that they don’t come cheap.

Faced with $1 trillion in cuts, the Blue Angels’ $20 million line item won’t make or break the national budget. But it does serve as an important reminder that something that looks like wasteful spending from one vantage point may be viewed as a smart community investment somewhere else.




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