With Federal Wallet Closed, States Agonize Over Opening Their Own

With Federal Wallet Closed, States Agonize Over Opening Their Own

Craig Kohlruss/The Fresno Bee, via Associated Press

Gov. Jerry Brown of California said the state would not intervene to keep its vast network of national parks open to the public.

By and
Published: October 4, 2013

LOS ANGELES – With no end in sight to the federal government shutdown, governors across the nation are struggling with a cascade of tough decisions about when and whether to step in with state funds to keep an ever-growing list of shuttered parks and programs

Gov. Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota has pleaded, so far unsuccessfully, for permission to use state funds to keep open the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, which tourists photographed this week from outside the entrance.

Here in California, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, said the state, already recovering from a steep economic decline, would not intervene to keep its vast network of national parks, like Yosemite, open to the public until the Washington impasse had ended.

But in South Dakota, Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, has pleaded, so far unsuccessfully, with the Interior Department for permission to use state funds to keep open the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, a symbol of his state and one of its top tourist draws. “Mount Rushmore is just a wonderful tourist destination and clearly the most significant attraction for tourism in South Dakota,” Mr. Daugaard said in an interview.

In Indiana, Gov. Mike Pence, also a Republican, is using state funds to keep 244 National Guard members on hand in case of an emergency. Similarly, in Colorado, Gov. John W. Hickenlooper, a Democrat, diverted state funds to keep the National Guard on the job, continuing its clean-up work after the floods that swept across his state last month.

And in Massachusetts, Thomas Weber, the state commissioner of early education and care, said the state would keep the Community Action Head Start program, serving 350 children, going for the next couple of weeks by advancing state funds from the group’s existing grant. Massachusetts is one of 15 states that supplement federal grants to the Head Start program.

“We thought it was worth providing the advance,” he said. “It really would have been devastating to the program to close.”

The decisions so far involve mostly high-profile programs receiving federal support that have been immediately imperiled, among them parks, Head Start programs that provided nutrition and education for low-income 3- and 4-year olds, law enforcement on Indian reservations and the National Guard.

The decisions and difficulties promise to grow more complicated and more polarizing if the shutdown extends and federal poverty programs administered by the states – in particular heating assistance and child nutrition programs — begin running dry.

The Head Start program is looming as a particular source of pressure for governors and their states. There are thousands of Head Start grants, typically starting at the beginning of the month, meaning that on Nov. 1 more programs around the country are going to run out of money.

Yasmina S. Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association, said 19,000 children from low-income families had lost or were at risk of losing services in 11 states because of the shutdown.

A federal government shutdown invariably poses all kinds of political and financial challenges to the states, as was demonstrated during the series of shutdowns in the 1990s.

But officials said the situation is markedly worse this time for two reasons. For one, the states are coming off the worst economic downturn since the Depression, which left many of their budgets battered and their rainy-day accounts depleted. And the polarization in Washington has complicated the calculations of state executives more than ever, with Democratic governors having little incentive to take steps to blunt the effect of what polls suggest is an unpopular move by Congressional Republicans.

The result has been a bewildering crosscurrent of forces as governors respond to events in Washington in decidedly different ways, weighing political, provincial and ideological considerations.

The shutdown of the national park system has proved to be particularly disruptive so far – creating waves of anxiety in regions where the parks are central to states’ economies and identities. In Arizona, business leaders have raised $150,000 so far to try to keep open at least one viewing site over the Grand Canyon.

But the Department of Interior has rebuffed such offers. Republicans said they view that as an attempt by the Democratic White House to keep pressure up on Republicans in Congress, but administration officials said they were legally bound from using private or even state funds to selectively open parks.

“It’s really unfortunate that the federal government shutdown is affecting the ability of citizens to see this icon of democracy,” said Mr. Daugaard, the governor of South Dakota. “The state is willing to help.”

He said he was also looking to use state funds to pay for police patrols of Indian reservations and, if necessary, to provide heating care assistance normally financed by Washington.

By contrast, Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, a Republican elected with Tea Party support, initially said she would not – or could not – do anything to keep open Grand Canyon National Park, taking a decidedly different tack from former Gov. Fife Symington, a Republican, who in 1995 sought to use the National Guard to keep it open, before resorting to collecting private donations.

“I don’t know if the Grand Canyon is a priority for the state of Arizona,” she told KNAU, the Arizona Public Radio station earlier this week. “We have a lot of priorities out here like our national guardsmen and our children and people who will be hurting desperately if we don’t get something done.”

Her spokesman, Andrew Wilder, said the governor had talked to federal officials about using state money and been rebuffed.

“So the bottom line is this: the Grand Canyon is Arizona’s most treasured attraction and a major source of tourism dollars,” he said in an e-mail. “Governor Brewer, along with all Arizonans, wants to see the national park reopen as soon as possible. But the canyon is funded and operated by the federal government – and its gates are closed because there’s a failure of leadership in Washington, D.C.”

Mike Litterst, a spokesman for the National Park Service, said the entire national park system was closed and could not be reopened until financing is restored. “Beyond the legal constraints involved, it would not be appropriate or feasible to open some parks or some parts of parks while other parts of the national park system remain closed to the public,” Mr. Litterst said.

California is coming off a severe economic downturn and facing huge long-term debt. Asked if there was any chance the state would divert resources to stop federal programs from shutting down, Evan Westrup, Mr. Brown’s press secretary, said, “One-word answer: No.”

In the weeks ahead, states will have to decide whether they want to step in for programs like Women, Infants and Children, known as W.I.C., which provides nutrition services for children. Officials said the federal money in the pipeline for that program would last about two weeks; the State of Washington posted a notice on Tuesday saying it had enough money for just nine more days of assistance.

“We have enough resources to get to the middle of October, and after that, it’s anybody’s guess what happens,” T. Eloise Foster, secretary of budget and management of the state of Maryland said of the nutrition program.

The state has not stepped in with its own resources on anything yet. And if it does, state officials say they are not clear on whether the federal government will repay the state afterward.”I am reluctant to say anything about what would happen in Washington,” Ms. Foster said.


Reporting was contributed by John Eligon from Kansas City,  Jack Healy from Denver, Kit Seelye from Boston, and Motoko Rich and Jennifer Preston from New York.


Author: AFGE Local 704

Representing over 900 bargaining unit employees working at the U.S. EPA Region 5 Offices in Chicago, Ann Arbor, MI and Westlake, OH.

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