Gov. Herbert’s budget director says state is in ‘decent shape’ during federal shutdown, but can’t fund programs indefinitely

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Internal Revenue Service customer service representative Diane Zelazny's eyes filled with tears from worry for her fellow IRS employees who don't have a spouse bringing in a second income and are under great stress and anxiety during a rally in protest of the ongoing partial federal shutdown outside Federal Building in Ogden, Jan. 10, 2019.

Four weeks into an unprecedented shutdown of the federal government, Utah’s government remains in “decent shape,” but with some harder decisions on the horizon, according to Kristen Cox, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, or GOMB.

During a Monday update with members of the press, Cox said her office is turning its attention toward longer-terms plans for maintaining public services without support from Washington.

“There’s nothing significant looming in the next week,” Cox said. “My biggest concern now is looking out six weeks to two months.”

Many programs, including nutrition services and defense, maintain funding from budget bills that passed prior to the stalemate between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats over $5.7 billion in funding for wall construction on the U.S.-Mexico border. But in some cases those budgets will expire in mid- to late-February, Cox said, putting Utah on the hook to spend the state’s rainy day balances, appropriate traditional funding during the upcoming legislative session, or ultimately allow services to lapse due to prioritization.

“We have to be eyes wide open going into this,” she said. “The state is not going to be in a position to keep all these programs open if this went [on] indefinitely.”

Utah has spent about $66,000 to keep open national parks in the state, including the cost of plowing access roads into Arches and Canyonlands. Private organizations have committed to funding the parks in the immediate future, Cox said, but restrooms and the scenic drive in Capitol Reef National Park will be closed.

Thanks to the September passage of a defense funding bill, Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah has continued functioning normally in recent weeks, a spokesman said. About 16,300 civilians are employed at Hill and about 5,700 members of the military are stationed at the base, and spokesman Donovan Potter said he’s not aware that any of them are affected by the shutdown.

BAE Systems, a defense contractor with employees at the Air Force base, appears to be doing fine, as well; a company spokesman said the shutdown hasn’t impacted any of its employees across the country.

The defense budget also includes most of the funding for the Utah National Guard. But reimbursement for contracts between the Guard and Department of Justice totaling $1.4 million will likely be delayed while the shutdown continues, according to GOMB.

And while many government programs remain operational, thousands of federal employees in the state have been excused from work or expected to complete their duties without pay. Last week, a group of roughly 150 government employees protested at Ogden’s federal building, while local food pantries, movie theaters and other organizations began offering free or discounted services to families impacted by the shutdown.

“We need Congress and the [president’s] administration to take us out of the political game,” Shelly Carver, treasurer of the local National Treasury Employees Union, said during the protest. “We don’t ask to be pawns.”

Nationwide, air travelers have experienced long lines and closed security checkpoints as unpaid TSA screeners have called in sick or failed to show up for work. But at Utah’s Salt Lake City International Airport, spokeswoman Nancy Volmer said that the shutdown has not yet impacted operations or led to congestion through screening lines.

That could change, she added, if the shutdown continues through the 2019 Sundance Film Festival or Presidents Day weekend, which traditionally see a spike in winter tourism for the state.

“Right now, folks are showing up to work,” Volmer said. “They’re getting our passengers through.”

Leaders in the Navajo Nation and Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah have urged federal officials to end their standoff, saying support for tribal nations has faltered during the shutdown.

“[O]ur people’s safety has been compromised because our roads are not fully maintained in this winter weather season, our health care system is feeling the pinch and if this continues for much longer, a variety of services could be affected both directly and indirectly,” outgoing Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said last week in a news release.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs maintains more than 7,600 miles of roads in the Navajo Nation, and the agency’s ability to clear these thoroughfares of snow and ice has been compromised by the shutdown, the release stated.

Tribal grant schools and schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Education received forward funding, so their teachers and support staff have been able to continue working. But scholarships and financial aid for Navajo students have gotten tangled up in the standoff in Washington.

An annual funding agreement would award more than $2.5 million for Navajo students, but the document's execution is held up until the federal government reopens, according to the Office of Navajo Nation Scholarship and Financial Assistance.

The Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah is frustrated by the lack of technical help with applying for federal grants. The tribal chairwoman, Tamra Borchardt-Slayton, said that because of the shutdown, assistance is unavailable from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service, Housing and Urban Development, environmental protection agencies and Bureau of Land Management.

The tribe has been able to get by so far without furloughing employees, she wrote in the Jan. 8 letter, but she said that there will be serious consequences if the shutdown goes on.

“Currently, the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah owns and operates FourPoints Health, federally qualified health centers, that service the underserved in providing adequate affordable healthcare and discount pharmacy,” she wrote. “If we close our clinics due to nonfunding, it will impact the greater community.”