Effects of government shutdown felt in Billings, CMR, elsewhere

2013-10-01T08:40:00Z 2013-10-01T16:53:08Z Effects of government shutdown felt in Billings, CMR, elsewhereGazette Staff The Billings Gazette
October 01, 2013 8:40 am  • 

Big Sky Honor Flight still scheduled: Montana World War II veterans will fly to Washington DC to visit the World War II memorial no matter what, said Bill Kennedy, honor flight vice president.

The average age of honor flight participants is 92, Kennedy said. There's no time to lose.

"We're going," Kennedy said.

Memorial gates are shut because of the federal government shutdown, but veterans from another state's honor flight arrived at the memorial Tuesday, pushed the gates open and proceeded. Kennedy said Montana veterans will do the same if necessary.

Huge refuge closed: Archery hunters spread out across the vast 1.1 million acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in central Montana will be told when seen by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement personnel that the area has been closed and will be asked to leave, according to Rick Potts, manager of the refuge. Those intercepts won’t be easy, though, considering there are 670 miles of road on the refuge.

In addition, signs will be posted at entry roads notifying the public of the closure due to the government shutdown.

Potts was not happy about the situation.

“We have been placed in an untenable position where we must ask the owners of this refuge to respect that order and leave,” he said.

It is also peak season for visits to the refuge’s Slippery Ann recreation area where elk herds gather in the fall during mating season with bull elk bugling and fighting within visitors’ view.

“It sickens me to tell them that they can’t enjoy the public resources they own,” Potts said.

At nearby Fort Peck Reservoir, 23 of the 27 recreation areas that include boat ramps and campgrounds are under management of the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps issued a press release on Monday saying that sites would be closed and that campers would be required to leave by 8 p.m. Wednesday. Those with reservations could receive refunds. The other four sites are managed by the state of Montana and include the Dredge Cut Trout Pond, Hell Creek, Rock Creek fishing access site and Duck Creek FAS.

Veterans health services unaffected: Veterans clinics across the state remain open and fully operational during the federal government shutdown. The Veterans Health Administration received its funding for the 2014 federal fiscal year, which began Tuesday, before the shutdown. All services, including shuttle services for disabled veterans, are functional.

Gov. Steve Bullock responds to shutdown: "Montana state government is open and our employees stand ready to serve the citizens of our state. All employees are on the job today, and all Montanans should be demanding that Congress gets its act together before we have to even consider furloughing state employees who are paid partially or fully with federal dollars.

 "But don’t fool yourself into thinking that this shutdown doesn't matter -- it impacts the services we expect from our federal government and over 10,000 Montana federal employees. This morning we had to send home nearly 600 Montana National Guard soldiers and airmen who are Department of Defense employees. We sent home more soldiers and airmen than there are members of the US Senate and House of Representatives combined.

"We can have legitimate differences over public policy, but it’s embarrassing that the greatest country in the world would shut down our government based on nothing more than political brinksmanship." 

Furloughed workers eligible for benefits: The Montana Department of Labor and Industry wants federal employees furloughed due to the government shutdown to know they are eligible for Unemployment Insurance Benefits.

Those affected by the shutdown can file for Unemployment Insurance Benefits online at www.ui4u.mt.gov. If those employees do receive back pay, they will have to repay their benefits.

The department is strongly encouraging claimants to file online. 

Gun background checks continue: As hunting seasons kick into high gear across the West, gun buyers will be happy to know that federal background checks required at purchase will continue despite the government shutdown.

Lon Bauer, owner of Butts Gun Sales in the Heights, said a blanket email went out to all Federal Firearms Licensees notifying them that the federal service is considered essential. Bauer added that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System has done a good job of keeping up with the increased volume of gun sales over the past year.

Planning on camping or hunting at a federal site? Due to the government shutdown, any place with a gate will be closed to the public. This includes Forest Service campgrounds, picnic areas and national wildlife refuges.

The Gallatin and Custer National Forests are furloughing all personnel except those essential to public safety, such as firefighters and law enforcement. In Montana, the Department of Agriculture employs more than 3,700 employees. In some small Montana towns, federal workers are a large portion of residents earning outside income.

The U.S. Forest Service office in Billings was closed Tuesday due to the shutdown. A sign posted on the door of the office at 1310 Main St. in the Heights reads: "This U.S. Department of Agriculture office is currently closed, due to the lapse in federal government funding. The office will reopen once Congress restores funding.”

Forest employees contacted by The Gazette said they had been told to direct all inquiries to the national office and weren’t even supposed to answer the telephone.

Off the record, out of fear of retribution from their superiors, they called the situation “unbelievable,” “chaotic” and said they felt like they were wrongly being used as pawns in a chess match.

According to a press release from the Forest Service, employees were required to report to their supervisor for direction and then, if nonessential, were told to fill out their time sheets, sign a furlough notice and informed about filing for unemployment benefits. Any employees on the road were told to return to the office and all leaves were cancelled.

Contracts with outside companies were being shut down as well, unless the work was deemed necessary for public safety.

The Forest Service had attempted to run on unappropriated funds to keep services open to the public, but that was denied on Monday.

Also on the minds of federal workers is whether they will earn back pay for the days they were furloughed, as happened in the last shutdown.

Economic statistics: When the federal government shut down at midnight, so did the flow of economic data that businesses, individuals and governments rely on.

The heart of the country’s data collection, the U.S. Census Bureau, has shut down, “due to the lapse in government funding,” according to its website.

That means economists across the country, like Scott Rickard at the Montana State University Billings, no longer have access to basic numbers about jobs, wages and other economic issues.

“That census data won’t be recovered. With the Census Bureau ceasing to make telephone calls and interviews to collect their primary data, this also will lead to other agencies not getting their data,” he said.

Census numbers, in turn, feed other key agencies that track the nation’s and state’s economies: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are private companies that follow payroll statistics, but the federal government numbers offer a different perspective, Rickard said.

Rural states like Montana, with lots of counties, will be especially impacted, Rickard said, because the Economic Analysis bureau is the only federal agency that tracks incomes in rural areas.

And this isn’t just a government or academic issue.

Private businesses that feed government statistics into their financial models to make decisions, such as how many tires to manufacture, also will be unable to plan, he said.

And the current shutdown is just the first of two key economic deadlines.

According to U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, the U.S. government will default on its debt again unless Congress raises the debt limit by Oct. 17 and an impasse on that issue could cause a global recession.

“Either of these events, as the shutdown already has, has the ability to significantly curtail federal spending,” Rickard said. “Even if this (shutdown) ends today, that doesn’t end the problem. This isn’t going to be over until there is a resolution to the debt ceiling also.”

BLM Wyoming: Most services on land in Wyoming managed by the Bureau of Land Management have been suspended, according to a release from the BLM. The exceptions are law enforcement and emergency response.

Approximately 4,000 recreation facilities, including visitor centers, facilities, campgrounds, boat ramps and other recreation sites are closed.

Issuance of new oil and gas permits will cease. The BLM will maintain the minimum staffing levels required to ensure continued safe management of the nation’s energy resources. Limited work will continue to ensure safe operations of domestic energy supplies, including inspection and enforcement activities for more than 16,489 oil and gas leases on federal land in Wyoming

Recreation on BLM-managed lands will be similarly impacted. In addition to the closure of recreation facilities such as campgrounds and boat ramps, BLM will also close the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper.

The BLM Wyoming will furlough nearly all of its approximately 600 employees during the funding lapse.

Suspended activities and services include nonemergency Abandoned Mine Land and hazardous-materials mitigation; processing of oil and gas drilling permits; processing of lease sales, permits and other nonemergency authorizations of onshore oil, and gas, coal and other minerals; permits and approvals for renewable energy and other rights-of-way issuances; Endangered Species Act and cultural clearances; range management restoration; wild horse and burro adoptions; sand and gravel permits; timber sales; and work on resource management plans, including those driven by court deadlines.

The BLM website will not be maintained during the shutdown. Additional information will be available at www.DOI.gov/shutdown as well as at OPM.gov.

Billings Area Indian Health Service: The IHS, which provides health care services on Montana's reservations and also in some urban centers, continues to serve patients, said Charlene Johnson, associate area director for the Office of Health Care Programs. "We're still providing direct clinical services as well as referrals for contracted services," Johnson said Tuesday morning. "So basically all of our direct health care services are still functioning." Nationwide, she said, about 94 percent of the IHS staff will remain on duty.

Wolf hearings postponed: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is postponing public hearings on delisting the gray wolf and listing the Mexican wolf on the Endangered Species List.

According to the FWS, the hearings scheduled for Wednesday in Sacramento, Calif., and Friday in Albuquerque, N.M., are being delayed because of loss of funding due to the government shutdown.

FWS will reschedule the hearings when the funding lapse is resolved and the FWS returns to work. The FWS said it hopes to be able to hold hearings scheduled for Oct. 17 in Denver.

No ag reports: Livestock, grain and hay market reports will not be issued the U.S. Department of Agriculture due to the government shutdown. An email from Kaye Orton, who provides market news, said she has been furloughed during the lapse in federal funding.

Community Development, city of Billings: Brenda Beckett, the city’s community development manager, said the shutdown has had little effect on her division.

Community Development oversees 16 AmeriCorps VISTA members working at local nonprofit organizations, and virtually all of them are paid out of project grants that have already been appropriated, she said.

The division can't call on technical assistance staff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development or the Corporation for National and Community Service during the shutdown, but it rarely needs such support, Beckett said.

As the workday began on Tuesday, workers were heading to their jobs, with uncertainty.

Vernon LaFontaine, a federal employee at the Bureau of Reclamation, went to his job in the Department of the Interior building on Tuesday just at the same time as any other day. 

"They told us to show up today," he said. "I haven't heard anything more than just what I've heard from fellow employees."

LaFontaine said he expects a meeting this morning where officials give employees a better idea of what's going on. 

A federal employee for more than 30 years, he has seen several shutdowns but each is different.

"In 1996 they didn't make us go to work," he said.  

Employees continued to get a paycheck in 1996, but this time around, no one is sure they will be paid.

That could hurt. 

"The question for all of us," he said, "is how long is it going to last?"

Billings has 1,689 federal government employees, the second only to Helena. Montana has 12,400 federal employees.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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