When former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asked Congress last year to authorize a new round of military base closings, alarm bells went off in many parts of California.
For this state has been victimized more than any other in the two already-completed rounds, which saw the military fail to realize most of the savings it hoped for, while people and communities involved took greater hits than predicted.
Sure, there have been positive new uses of some old bases, from parkland in the Presidio of San Francisco to the Cal State Monterey Bay campus on the former site of Ft. Ord. But the jobs lost when those bases closed, plus the ones lost from the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, the El Toro Marine Air Station, March Air Force Base and many others still have not been replaced.
Nor have the ripple effects stopped, as many businesses near those bases disappeared or became far less profitable than before, employing many thousands fewer than they once did.
That’s why there should have been a sign of relief around California early this spring, when a U.S. Senate panel announced it will not back the Defense Department on another base closure round, despite the usual Pentagon warnings that excess facilities will bloat budgets and ultimately hurt readiness.
Although California took the brunt of the two previous rounds of base closings, neither of its senators was part of this proceeding, mostly because of their committee assignments.
Both previous series of base closures saw Congress give up much of its control, agreeing to set up Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commissions, then vote yes or no on the entirety of those groups’ proposals without the possibility of making any changes.
But senators don’t appear to be as willing to part with their power this time. “Let me just make clear up front that I continue to be opposed to (a new) BRAC,” New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte said during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee.
“You make everyone nervous when you do a BRAC because every community across the United States has to hire lobbyists and lawyers,” added Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine.
The lobbyists are needed to prevent local economic disasters like those still felt in many parts of California, which lost far more bases than any other state in the previous BRAC rounds. The closures are a major reason California ranks just 43rd among all states in federal per capita spending, getting back only 78 cents for every dollar its taxpayers put into the U.S. Treasury.
But military officials at the subcommittee hearing testified that about 20 percent of Defense Department property is unneeded and the department could save about $2 billion a year if it closed even more bases.
Yet, those same officials admitted under questioning that the previous rounds have not saved as much as expected, while harming military communities across America. While closing 56 major bases and hundreds of smaller installations cost the military $29 billion, it turns out the closures have saved a net total of only about $1 billion a year since. Hardly worth the bother.
The upshot is that California this time may evade the economic consequences that have followed each spate of base closings in the early 2000s and the mid-1990s.
Which means that cities around the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base in northern San Diego County can breathe easier today. The same for areas around the Army’s Ft. Irwin desert warfare training center in San Bernardino County and the Navy’s air station near Lemoore in the Central Valley. And more.
For while Congress – and almost all Californians serving there – enthusiastically backed the previous BRAC plans, things didn’t look so good afterwards. For one thing, California dropped 20 places in its rank among the states in federal spending. Federal salaries paid to Californians alone fell by $9 billion per year because of the two BRACs, a huge economic hit.
So even though Californians have so far had nothing to do with it, all signs point to a long wait before another BRAC round occurs, with this state among the chief beneficiaries of keeping the status quo.