October 2, 2013

Most agencies, aid programs in Maine operating – for now

The state receives federal funds for social services, defense workers, veterans, parks, schools and more.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

and Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

In the second day of the federal government’s shutdown, state and local agencies that stand to be affected took a business-as-usual approach, saying they hope the shutdown won’t last much longer but acknowledging that adequate funding becomes less certain the longer the impasse continues.

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Postal Service

The U.S. Postal Service is an independent agency with its own stream of funding, so post offices will remain open and mail delivery will continue as usual.

Airports

The Transportation Security Administration and air traffic controllers are continuing to operate.

National Parks and wildlife refuges

All national parks, as well as federal wildlife refuges like the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, are closed.

Amtrak Downeaster

All Amtrak trains are running as usual.

Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid

These programs are considered to be mandatory spending, and benefits will continue to be processed as usual. However, new applicants may experience delays.

Section 8 programs

Rental-assistance programs have enough funding to pay landlords through October.

VA Clinics

Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Augusta and smaller VA outpatient clinics throughout the rest of the state are fully operational.

WIC and SNAP benefits

Food stamp programs are open for now and operating on reserve funds.

Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program

Uncertain funding will put applications for federal heating assistance programs on hold. “Once we find out, we’ll kick into overdrive to get those benefits out,” says Deborah Turcotte of MaineHousing.

Furloughs of federal workers and closures of national parks and monuments are among the most immediate and visible effects of the shutdown that began Tuesday, but the impact will widen if Congress fails to reach a budget agreement and the shutdown continues for more than a few weeks. The contingency plans for most agencies would fund programs for several more weeks.

HEALTH CARE, FOOD

John Martins, spokesman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said his department’s focus now is on ensuring that clients get the aid they need in the short term.

The program that would be affected most, he said, is the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program. Run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the program provides supplementary food assistance to income-eligible pregnant women and mothers with dependent children younger than 5. The annual income limit is $28,694 for a family of two, or $43,568 for a family of four.

The program serves 26,000 clients in Maine, including 7,000 in Cumberland County, providing them with infant formula, fresh fruits and vegetables, and a range of grocery items. Lisa Burgess Hodgkins, who directs the program, said she expects to have enough money to cover current clients and new applicants through November.

And if that federal money runs out because of a prolonged shutdown, Hodgkins said, “We haven’t had those conversations yet. We are hoping that things get resolved before the end of the month.”

MaineCare, which is Maine’s Medicaid program, is not affected. Two other federal subsidy programs – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – food stamps – are not expected to be affected immediately, said Martins.

But the shutdown is more complex than just subsidy payments. Many state employees are funded, at least partially, with federal dollars.

“We are doing an analysis of our staffing and the potential impact, while looking for federal guidance as to how to proceed,” Martins said in an email Wednesday. “Much of this work is based on the timing of grant funding, how much funding we have received from the feds (pre- or post-shutdown) and what the feds say it can be used for.”

HOUSING, HEATING, TRANSPORTATION

For the Maine State Housing Authority, which oversees a variety of federally funded housing-related programs, the biggest programs that could be affected are the housing subsidy known as Section 8 and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, said Public Information Officer Deborah Turcotte.

Only two days into the shutdown, the information the authority was getting about how it could be affected was changing.

“Initially, we thought we’d be able to fund Section 8 through the end of December,” Turcotte said. “On Tuesday, we learned that payment would be good through October.”

Funding for November and December are now uncertain, she said.

Mike Halsey, executive director of the South Portland Housing Authority, said his federally funded programs, including Section 8, are funded on a calendar year.

“Theoretically, that money is available, but I’m not going to issue checks to landlords until I’m sure,” he said.

If landlords who accept Section 8 vouchers are forced to go a month or more without getting payments, they could evict the tenants, Halsey said.

“I haven’t gotten a lot of calls yet. I’m not sure it’s sunken in,” he said.

For the home heating assistance program, the state housing authority usually knows by this time of year how much funding will be allocated to Maine. Last year, $34.9 million in heating assistance was distributed to 55,000 households in the state – a 10 percent reduction because of the automatic federal spending cuts known as sequestration.

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