By Don Davis
The impact of a federal government shutdown on Minnesotans was spotty Tuesday, but an extended one would cause more widespread problems.
State officials are examining the situation, and Commissioner Jim Schowalter of Minnesota Management and Budget activated the “Statewide Contingency Response Team.”
“Due to the size and complexity of federal funding, determining impacts is complicated,” Schowalter said. “Not all agencies, and therefore services, are impacted equally.”
A longer shutdown would mean a longer list of affected services, he added.
Most people felt little impact Tuesday, but about 18,000 civilian federal workers around Minnesota were sent home on furlough after Congress could not agree on extending the federal budget.
Federal programs Americans use most often remain open. They get mail, weather forecasts will not change and food inspections continue.
Most federal payments to Americans will continue, those such as food stamps, veterans’ medical services, Medicare, Medical Assistance, Social Security and women, infants and children grants.
On the other hand, many of the offices where people sign up for federal aid will be closed, so it will be hard or impossible to sign up for aid or get answers.
An email sent by state Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson is typical of what is happening around Minnesota. She said a short shutdown would not have much impact.
“We want to assure you that we do not anticipate any effect on benefits to clients for health care, cash, food and other human service programs for October,” Jesson wrote. “While FFY (federal fiscal year) 2014 appropriations for some programs would not be available during a shutdown, we either are currently still accessing federal funds from previous years’ awards or have state funding to cover these programs in the short term.”
Only small changes are being seen at another big state agency, the Department of Natural Resources.
But DNR workers are getting plenty of questions about state parks, the department’s Chris Niskanen said. The reply? “Absolutely they are open.”
Federal recreation facilities, such as national parks, are closed and reservations are not being accepted.
In Minnesota, the major recreation facilities closed are Pipestone National Monument, Voyageurs National Park, Grand Portage National Monument, Mississippi National Recreational River and St. Croix National Scenic River. National wildlife refuges and other federal government lands also are closed.
“If they are not sure if something is a state park or not, they can go to mndnr.gov,” Niskanen said.
One relatively little casualty is possible: An Oct. 19-20 youth deer hunt at Rydell National Wildlife Refuge near Erskine in northwestern Minnesota may need to be canceled if the shutdown lasts long enough.
Around the state, the situation varied.
More than 1,200 civilian National Guard employees were furloughed, mostly in Duluth, St. Paul and at Camp Ripley.
American Indian reservation officials worried.
In Bemidji, the Minnesota Agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which serves the whole state, was closed Tuesday.
“Approximately 57 percent of our overall budget at White Earth is federal funds,” White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor said. “So if this shutdown continues beyond a week, we are going to feel it.
“The impact is that we really have no one to call for any kind of information, technical assistance or to follow up on the various projects we have going,” Vizenor added.
Some Indian Health Service employees worked at half pay, she said. Even though they will receive back pay for their lost wages once the shutdown ends, it could take up to six weeks to process.
Kevin Gutknecht of the Minnesota Department of Transportation said the Federal Highway Administration is not part of the shutdown and that MnDOT has managed its funds so it can pay for existing projects.
Washington County Administrator Molly O’Rourke said there will be no negative impact on the county’s ability to provide cash and food support services through October.
The Nuclear Regulatory Agency, which provides oversight on Xcel Energy’s Prairie Island nuclear plant near Red Wing, has enough funds carried over from last year to operate for at least a week without changes, according to a statement by the NRC’s Mark Satorius.
Should the shutdown continue, the NRC plans to keep key staff members working in case of a crisis, he said.
Also near Red Wing, employees at U.S. Lock and Dam No. 3 reported for work as usual Tuesday, operating under deferred-pay status.
Minnesota offices of the Farm Service Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, initiated shutdown procedures, including closing the agency’s website.
University of Minnesota officials said they are concerned if the shutdown lasts. While students receiving federal grants should not be affected, new research grants likely will not be funded.
Ed Shelleby, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Al Franken, said he probably could not provide a complete idea of the Minnesota impact because “most of our staff are furloughed so not sure I will be able to pull much more together.”
Politicians generally split along party lines on shutdown issues, with Democrats blaming Republicans for insisting on chipping away at new federal health care laws generally known as Obamacare and Republicans saying Democrats refuse to negotiate on the budget.
“This Republican shutdown didn’t have to happen …” Democratic President Barack Obama said. “They demanded ransom just for doing their job.”
U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, a Republican who represents northwestern Wisconsin, said on CNN that the GOP is trying to find a health care compromise Obama can accept.
“We are trying to find agreement, we are trying to find compromise, to try to keep government open,” he said, hours after the partial shutdown began.
“A couple small little tweaks,” he said of Obamacare. “That is all we ask.”
A Minnesota U.S. Senate candidate is one of the few politicians to go against his party line.
“It is time for members of both parties to stop talking past each other, stop managing the nation from crisis to crisis, and start showing some actual leadership,” said Republican Mike McFadden, a businessman and first-time candidate. “I agree that Obamacare has to be repealed and replaced, but shutting down the government is not the answer.”
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Republican with a district north and northwest of the Twin Cities, called the event a “slowdown” instead of a “shutdown.” She defended the need to slow down Obamacare.
“The American people are worried and uncertain about the future of their health care coverage,” Bachmann said. “Every day my office is flooded with phone calls, emails, Facebook posts and tweets from Americans who are deeply concerned about the negative impact of Obamacare on their families, their jobs, their health care and their small businesses.
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat representing St. Paul and eastern Twin Cities suburbs, said Republicans manufactured the crisis and urged Americans to get involved.
“Unfortunately, this GOP shutdown will not end without citizens across the country – Democrats, independents, and common-sense Republicans – taking action and rising up against the madness of a Republican Party dangerously out of control,” McCollum said. “The time for citizen engagement and action is now.”
From south of the Twin Cities, Republican U.S. Rep. John Kline said the Democratic-controlled Senate should negotiate with the Republican-controlled House.
“The House has voted for a third time to keep the government running and protect Americans from the president’s fatally flawed health care law, while the Senate and White House sit idly by refusing to compromise,” Kline said of a bill that would have funded federal programs and delayed a requirement that Americans carry health insurance.
U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democrat serving northeastern Minnesota, said the Republican stance is dictated by the party’s far right members.
“The American people sent this Congress to Washington to use common sense – to collaborate, compromise, solve problems and govern – not to shut down the federal government,” Nolan said.
Southern Minnesota’s U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat, said Republicans played “political games.”
“Ensuring the government remains open is one of Congress’ most basic responsibilities,” Walz said. “It’s incredibly reckless that the House majority has yet again chosen party over country and abdicated its duties in order to play political games and pander to their tea party base.”
Forum News Service reporters from throughout Minnesota contributed to this story.