Washington • Utah’s members of Congress were hopping mad: The state had forked over more than $1 million to reopen its national parks during the 2013 government shutdown and the feds were balking at paying back the money.
“It’s only fair and right for the state to be reimbursed for picking up the federal government’s slack,” Sen. Orrin Hatch said at the time.
Legislation was introduced. News releases were sent. Terse statements were uttered against President Barack Obama’s administration.
Five years later, there’s been no reconciliation. Are Utah leaders finally resigned to the fact they may never see their money back?
“Basically,” says Rep. Rob Bishop. “But it’s still unfair.”
A million bucks isn’t much compared with the state’s nearly $17 billion budget, but it’s not nothing.
Bishop agreed other priorities had overtaken the issue, and it had been largely forgotten. But he says he may “make another run at it” before he loses his seat as House Natural Resources Committee chairman when Democrats take over in January.
Technically, the state is still owed $999,400, but it would take an act of Congress to force the Interior Department to pony up.
Gov. Gary Herbert acknowledges that it’s more than an uphill battle to get the feds to reimburse the state, but he notes that putting up the money during the 16-day government shutdown was a good move since it allowed tourists to visit national parks and spend money in nearby communities.
“While we would love to be reimbursed for those funds, it was money well spent,” Herbert says. “We’d do it again if we had to.”
The shutdown was largely blamed on GOP Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas over their efforts to end funding of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as “Obamacare.” The budget stalemate resulted in the furlough of hundreds of thousands of federal workers and shuttered government offices. The Obama administration also closed national parks, arguing it would be unsafe for visitors without park rangers and other personnel present.
It was an untenable spot for Utah, where five national parks and other federal lands attract millions of visitors every year.
The state reached an agreement with then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to pay to reopen the parks during the shutdown, wiring $1.67 million to the federal government. Some $600,000 was unspent when the government reopened and was returned to the state.
Other states also ponied up and got the feds to reopen parks — Colorado, Arizona and New York, among others, sent the federal government money, pleading to reopen tourist-driven sites — but none was reimbursed.
Herbert says the decision was easy, even if getting the money back was questionable.
“Our national parks play such an integral role in our travel and tourism that we could not afford a shutdown of any period,” Herbert says. “We expect Congress and the administration to do the job they were elected to do, properly fund the federal government and avoid an unnecessary lapse in funding or services."
Bishop says that even under President Donald Trump’s administration, the federal government has stood by legal counsel that it can’t pay back the states. The original agreements in 2013 didn’t require it and therefore Congress needed to step in.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a former Montana congressman, says he would happily hand over the money if legislation is passed.
During a brief, two-day government shutdown in January, Zinke worked to keep open most parks and sites managed by the National Park Service, including the National Mall in Washington and parks in Utah.
“Since the earliest days of his tenure and even as congressman, the secretary’s position has been that national parks should remain as open and accessible as possible during government shutdowns,” says Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift. “He was critical of the way parks were weaponized by the previous administration and made a point of making sure that did not happen under his watch in 2018. Thankfully, states like Utah stepped up and were able to shoulder the cost in 2013.”
Swift notes that, by law, it would take congressional action to remedy the issue.
“Should Congress approve the measure," she says, “the secretary will make good on it.”