For 12,400 Montana federal workers, shutdown creates uncertainty

2013-09-30T21:53:00Z 2013-10-02T16:56:06Z For 12,400 Montana federal workers, shutdown creates uncertaintyBy TOM LUTEY tlutey@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

With a federal government shutdown looming Monday, few agencies would say what was in store for government services or Montana’s 12,400 federal workers.

National parks, including Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier, are expected to close to visitors, federal farm payments won’t be issued and new applications for government services were expected to pile up with no one to process them.

Federal government services considered essential for national security or public safety were expected to continue, as were services secured in the Constitution. All other services were to stop until Congress passes a continuing resolution or a 2014 federal funding bill.

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

Some government agencies expected a complete shutdown.

“Unless a funding bill or continuing resolution is signed into law, all 49 USDA Farm Service Agency offices across Montana will be closed on Oct. 1,” said Bruce Nelson, Montana Farm Service Agency director. “All 200 Montana FSA employees would be placed on furlough.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is Montana’s largest federal government agency, with more than 3,000 employees. FSA issues more than $300 million a year to Montanans for everything from farm loans to conservation payments. Those payments won’t go out during the shutdown, according to FSA, and will be delayed afterward.

Social Security and Veterans Administration payments are expected to continue. If the shutdown lasted a few days, groups who rely on federal support said they would get by. A longer shutdown would be would be difficult.

“They’ll be OK. I’m not going to throw them out of the house,” said Mike Hampson, vice president of the Montana Veterans Foundation. The organization runs a transitional facility for homeless veteran men in Helena. “You know we’ll get caught up eventually.”

Hampson was still in the armed services when the government shut down in 1995. In that shutdown, military pay was delayed. This time, Congress has decided to continue military pay uninterrupted through the shutdown.

AARP Montana was advising members that Social Security payments would be largely unaffected by a shutdown, but that Social Security offices would be affected because of worker furloughs. In the 1995 and 1996 shutdowns, new Social Security benefits claims weren’t processed. It could be more difficult to get questions answered, AARP cautioned.

It wasn’t clear whether the popular senior citizen food program Meals on Wheels would be suspended by a shutdown.

The U.S. Postal Service, because its revenue is fee based, wouldn’t shut down.

The federal court system was expected to operate uninterrupted, at least for a while.

Montana’s federal judiciary and federal defender services will continue operations, at least for a while, if the government shuts down.

U.S. Clerk of Court Tyler Gilman, in Missoula, said fees collected for various services will keep the judiciary running for a couple of weeks. The judiciary would not be immediately affected by an Oct. 1 shutdown, he said on Monday.

Tony Gallagher, chief defender for the Federal Defenders of Montana, based in Great Falls, said, “All of my staff will report for work regardless of a general government shutdown.”

The judiciary, Gallagher said, has money to continue operations for 10 working days and he will address developments as they arise. “But right now, we will not be shutting down if the government shuts down tonight,” he said Monday.

U.S. Marshal Darrell Bell and a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office both said they were waiting for direction from the Department of Justice.

The shutdown would be bad for the economy, said Patrick Barkey, Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research economist. The payroll loss for federal employees would have some impact, Barkey said, but the bigger economic loss would be the lack of government services people rely upon for their daily business. 

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