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A year of budget uncertainty buys another round

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By Roger Snodgrass

It was a roller-coaster year for Los Alamos National Laboratory’s financial outlook.Coming off a season of belt-tightening under new management, the laboratory looked forward to a flat budget, at worst, for 2008.Then the situation started looking bleaker from the lab’s perspective, followed by a tantalizing ray of hope that slowly clouded over again. The drama went down to the wire.The Congressional elections of 2006 gave Democrats a reason to resist Republican funding bills until after the votes were in and the Democrats won nominal majorities in both chambers. But their margin in the Senate was only one vote, not enough to leverage major shifts in priorities.This year’s budget (FY07) wasn’t decided until the end of January. The Democrat’s narrow advantage and mutual blame for the delay reduced many issues to the status quo for the 2007 fiscal year, ending Sept. 30.There would be no need for layoffs this year, according to commitments from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., in January.In June, House appropriators fashioned a budget to fund the Department of Energy and national laboratories from Oct. 1, 2007 to Sept. 30, 2008, that yanked LANL’s chain, cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from Los Alamos programs and projects.A comment by Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., attributed the cuts to security problems at the lab. Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M, who represents the district that includes LANL, voted in favor of this bill, on July 17, after his amendment to restore $192 million of the cuts was defeated. His vote in favor of the bill became one of the most controversial votes of the year. The House appropriation bill passed 311-112 with only one Democrat voting against and 88 Republicans voting in favor.In voting for the bill’s increased investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy, Udall also called for a change in the laboratory’s mission.He expressed his view that political support for the costly nuclear weapons complex was declining in both parties, a position that his opponents condemned.Meanwhile, the Senate appropriations subcommittee, of which Domenici is the ranking member, delivered a bill that restored many of the funds that had been cut by the House. But after approval by the Senate appropriations committee, the bill never came to a vote in the Senate, as the calendar ran out.The new fiscal year began Oct. 1 with the laboratory on a Continuing Resolution, maintaining the FY07 funding levels, which were in turn based on the FY06 budget. As gridlock set in, uncertainty mounted and the nuclear weapons agency in charge of the laboratories, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), ordered them to begin a formal planning process for restructuring.Without waiting for the outcome of the budget wrangle, LANL managers with NNSA approval decided to implement the first phase of that plan, calling first for voluntary resignations.Finally, in the last business week of the year, Congress resolved a consolidated appropriation that bundled 11 unfunded appropriation bills into a single measure.The energy and water development portion, which contained the funding for LANL, bore unmistakable signs of Domenici’s influence.While the final numbers await disbursement decisions by the Department of Energy and NNSA, Domenici announced that $415 million of an estimated $600 million reduction in the House appropriation bill had been restored. “Restoring the cuts proposed by the House to the weapons program means the labs should be able to carry out their national security missions and maintain their workforces,” Domenici said. “This bill will not reverse current plans to lay off 500-750 workers at Los Alamos, but it should help to avoid additional and future lay-offs.”A year of uncertainty has seen the laboratory revolve financially not far from where it was last January, with the advantage of having had another year of new lessons on the uncertainties to come.