Wednesday, March 12, 2014
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.
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.
The Transportation Security Administration and air traffic controllers are continuing to operate.
All national parks, as well as federal wildlife refuges like the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, are closed.
All Amtrak trains are running as usual.
These programs are considered to be mandatory spending, and benefits will continue to be processed as usual. However, new applicants may experience delays.
Rental-assistance programs have enough funding to pay landlords through October.
Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Augusta and smaller VA outpatient clinics throughout the rest of the state are fully operational.
Food stamp programs are open for now and operating on reserve funds.
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.
Turcotte said the housing authority has no idea what Maine’s share will be in the next year. “Once we find out, we’ll kick into overdrive to get those benefits out,” she said.
She said reports that the authority’s first-time homebuyers program would be closed temporarily were incorrect. That program, which provides no-down-payment home loans to eligible borrowers, has not been affected.
Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, said there will be no immediate impact on the department. The Federal Highway Administration, which provides a large chunk of the department’s budget, is funded through the end of the 2014 federal fiscal year. But if the shutdown persists, his department could run into permitting issues with two federal agencies, the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If that happens, he said, some projects could be delayed or stopped.
About 97,000 lunches and 43,000 breakfasts are served daily in Maine to students who receive free or reduced-price meals through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program. Walter Beesley, director of the food services program in the Maine Department of Education, said USDA officials have told the state that schools will continue to be reimbursed, even in an extended shutdown.
However, the funds to support the 10 staff members in Beesley’s office who administer the program in Maine could be cut. The program – including those salaries – is funded with federal dollars.
“When November comes, I’m not sure what will happen,” Beesley said. But he sought to reassure parents that children in the program will likely be protected.
The agency’s most immediate problem, Beesley said, was the fact that the USDA’s website was down, preventing his staff from accessing resources. Visitors to the site found a message saying the website was unavailable “due to the lapse in federal government funding” and directing them to generic pages with information on the shutdown.
Michael Wilson, chief financial officer for Portland schools, said no federally funded programs will be affected immediately, but that could change if the impasse persists. The school district, and many others, receive money from federal grants, but most of that money has already been committed or is exempt from the shutdown.
For instance, special education funding, Elementary and Secondary Education Act funding and the Perkins grant that supports career and technical education are approved and funded for the school year.
The USDA said it will continue to fund the school meals program through October.
“Thankfully, there is no immediate impact on our schools,” said Justin Costa, who chairs the Portland school board’s Finance Committee. “In the long term, any economic downturn caused by the shutdown could result in less state aid to our schools and jeopardize important educational programming.”
Although some states have already had to close their Head Start programs, Maine’s Head Start programs are funded through the current school year. The program, funded by the Department of Health and Human Services, provides low-income preschoolers with education and nutrition services.
However, the shutdown is having an impact on some lesser-known school programs.
Fran Seeley, 72, of Portland is one of 125 employees of a federally funded program for schools in Cumberland and York counties. Those “foster grandparents” assist elementary school teachers in the classroom, paying particular attention to children who have advanced needs.
Seeley said she plans to keep going to work until she’s told not to, but her program is set to lose funding by Oct. 15, said Mike Tarpinian, president and CEO of the Opportunity Alliance, a community action agency that serves 20,000 individuals and families in Cumberland County.
Acadia National Park isn’t the only park where visitors are being turned away.
Cobscook Bay State Park in far Down East Maine closed Wednesday because the land is part of the federally owned Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge. The Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands manages about 800 of the refuge’s 29,000 acres under a decades-old agreement.
Bill Kolodnicki, the refuge’s manager, said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had to ask the state to close the Cobscook Bay campground because of liability concerns and the fact that there is no federal staffing because of the shutdown. A boat ramp that’s popular with boaters has also been closed.
The refuge had to cancel three high school cross-country meets and a trail maintenance crew that drew people from across the country. On Wednesday afternoon, Kolodnicki was preparing to leave Moosehorn. He will be prohibited from returning – along with the rest of the refuge staff except law enforcement – until the budget situation is resolved.
“It’s very hard for our staff and for the public,” he said.
About 170 workers have been furloughed at the Naval Sea Systems Command’s supervisor of shipbuilding office at Bath Iron Works because of the shutdown, said spokesman Chris Johnson. That is in addition to the 1,500 workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery who have been sent home.
One of the largest groups that would be severely affected by a prolonged shutdown is disabled veterans, military retirees and their surviving spouses.
Veterans will continue to receive medical care at facilities such as the Togus hospital outside Augusta because those accounts are funded a year ahead. But the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said in a “field guide to the government shutdown” that funding for processing and payments of pensions and compensation for education and rehabilitation programs will continue only through late October.
After that, “claims processing and payments in these programs would be suspended,” the department said.
Members of Congress have discussed a legislative patch to address the benefits.
“If payments are suspended, veterans will not be denied what they are entitled to – veterans will be paid retroactively once funding is in place,” said Ed Gilman, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Maine veterans received $420 million in disability compensation and pensions in fiscal year 2012, according to the VA. The state has an estimated 130,000 veterans.
Peter Ogden, director of the Maine Bureau of Veterans Services, said his department is receiving regular updates from the VA about the situation. It also is getting calls from veterans and family members. But the department is not yet at the point where it is discussing how to respond if pension and disability compensation payments stop arriving.
Gov. Paul LePage urged Mainers late Wednesday to demand that Congress act to put National Guard employees back to work. About 400 in Maine were furloughed this week. He also said that guardsmen and women should be included in the Pay Our Military Act, which passed before the shutdown and guaranteed pay for active military members.
“Some of these men and women have been deployed multiple times,” LePage said in a prepared statement. “Now they are being used to make a political point. This is a shameful tactic to use against Mainers who have put their life on the line to protect our freedoms.”
Steve SanPedro, commander of the Portland post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he had not heard from any members who have not received their benefits.
“I was a little worried about getting a (disability) check on Tuesday, but it came,” he said. “Next month, who knows?”
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: