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Sunday, January 20, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

How the shutdown affects WSU, Mount Rainier, wheat farmers and more

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 9, 2019, 7:14 a.m.

The lapse in funding for the Agriculture Department has shuttered Farm Service Agency offices throughout wheat country, closing off access to certain loan programs. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
The lapse in funding for the Agriculture Department has shuttered Farm Service Agency offices throughout wheat country, closing off access to certain loan programs. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

While much of the nation’s attention has been captivated by holiday travel lines during the early days of the partial federal government shutdown, there are warning signs a prolonged closure could reverberate beyond the terminals.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue put some of those fears on hold Tuesday afternoon, telling reporters in a conference call his agency would fund food stamp benefits through the end of February using a provision of the federal funding bill that expired Dec. 21, prompting the shutdown.

“It works, and it is legally sound,” Perdue said. “We want to assure states, and SNAP recipients, that the benefits for February will be provided.”

Prior to Perdue’s announcement, states had been operating under the belief that funding for the food assistance program would lapse at the end of January. Such a delay would have affected more than 83,000 Spokane County residents who receive benefits, according to a state report on the program issued in June. Perdue’s announcement came 24 hours after the Trump administration reported it would continue to process tax returns, another potential source of political fallout as the partial government shutdown nears its third week.

There are other consequences looming as many employees of nine federal agencies remain on unpaid leave over a quarrel between President Donald Trump and members of Congress about the need for additional funding to build a physical barrier at the southern border with Mexico. Those effects could be felt beyond the roughly 6,100 federal employees who live and work in the Spokane metro area and North Idaho.

No slowdowns reported at Spokane International Airport

One of the agencies that has been hit by the shutdown is the Department of Homeland Security, but the payroll freeze hasn’t led to a halt in air travel. Agents with the Transportation Security Agency have been working without pay as members of a group known as “essential” government employees, as defined by contingency plans laid out by the federal agencies.

While there have been reports of security slowdowns and larger numbers of employees calling in sick at other airports nationwide, the lapse in pay hasn’t affected operations at Spokane International Airport, airport spokesman Todd Woodard said.

“Yesterday, we spoke with the TSA and Spokane International Airport has not seen any delays in passenger screening as a result of the shutdown of the federal government,” Woodard wrote in an email.

TSA said in a statement last weekend, in response to a CNN report that “call outs” had increased over the holiday season, that they were having a “minimal impact” on screening processes at the nation’s airports.

Meanwhile, the union representing 700,000 federal workers, including many deemed “essential,” filed a lawsuit Dec. 31 alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act for requiring them to work without pay.

On the farm

The lapse in funding for the Agriculture Department has shuttered Farm Service Agency offices throughout wheat country, closing off access to certain loan programs.

Eric Maier, a Ritzville wheat grower, said January is usually a slow month for coordination between the FSA and individual growers. But he was unable Tuesday to work with officials in Whitman County to obtain a commodity loan for wheat he’d like to sell later, cutting off a potential cash stream and future profits amid the simmering trade battle with China.

“It’s just a really good tool and gives us some time for the market to respond,” Maier said.

The FSA also is not available to guarantee operating loans, which potentially cuts off lines of credit between farmers and lending institutions, Maier said.

Perdue offered some relief Tuesday for the nation’s farmers, announcing he’d extend the deadline to apply for a federal aid program created in response to escalating tariffs on American goods from some countries following sweeping duties announced by Trump. The second round of the program, which had a mixed response from growers and lawmakers, originally was scheduled to end Jan. 15, but farmers had been unable to apply after the closure of the local FSA offices.

The closure has led to a delay in discussions between individual growers and government officials about the effects of the new farm bill, which was approved last month.

“All that stuff is just going to be pushed back,” Maier said. “It’s a bigger effect than probably I’m realizing.”

Food stamps

Full benefits will be paid for February to recipients of food assistance, Perdue said, and new applications would continue to be processed.

Administration officials are relying on a clause of the expired federal funding bill that authorizes spending for mandatory programs, like SNAP, up to 30 days after appropriations lapse. That means that states will have to apply for assistance by Jan. 20 in order to receive their benefits for February, several days earlier than is usual practice.

Funding for the food assistance program after February will be contingent upon a new spending deal in Congress. Perdue urged lawmakers to forward a bill that President Trump would sign.

“We provided an additional month of SNAP benefits,” Perdue said. “That is ample time for Congress to act.”

National parks

The National Park Service is overseen by the Department of the Interior, one of the nine federal agencies that saw its funding lapse in December. In its contingency plan for the shutdown, the agency indicated it would not perform visitor services that include trash collection, maintaining public restrooms and snow plowing.

With wintry weather forecast on Mount Rainier, the park service announced over the weekend the main gates would be closed until further notice.

“Due to the unavailability of park staff to provide essential public services and ensure continued road safety for visitors, this closure to public vehicles is expected to continue until further notice,” the service posted on the park’s website Sunday afternoon.

Mount Rainier National Park attracted 2 million visitors in 2017, according to park service statistics.

Federal workers

The state’s Department of Employment Security announced it had processed unemployment claims for 1,000 federal employees who had been furloughed as a result of the shutdown, with resources available for others who are going on three weeks without working.

Erin Kidwell, a U.S. Forest Service worker living near Portland and a regional representative of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said she’s applied for a part-time ski operator job while waiting for the government to reopen.

“It pays about a third of what I make in salary. I believe unemployment will make up the difference,” Kidwell said. “It’s been complex and messy and stressful.”

Adding to the confusion is the timing of the shutdown right around the holidays and the uncertainty that reigned in Washington, D.C., in the days leading up to the shutdown.

“It was kind of a surprise,” Kidwell said. “I don’t think people really expected that it was going to happen.”

To file for unemployment, workers need proof of employment that includes pay stubs, which some workers may not have been in the office to pick up because of the holiday, Kidwell said. She anticipated there would be more public concerns raised from federal workers now that paychecks are not being delivered.

“People are going to get louder,” she said. “The urgency is going to come out.”

Research

The longer the shutdown continues, the more Washington State University must dig into its pockets to pay for the hundreds of research projects underway.

“We’re really going to take the hit if this thing extends,” said Chris Keane, vice president for research at WSU.

The federal government awards certain amounts for each research project through grants and contracts, with the university then billing for reimbursement from government agencies. With no workers at those agencies to process the payments, Keane said, it falls upon the school to foot the bill until the government reopens.

The shutdown is affecting the Agriculture Department and the National Science Foundation, two of the biggest contributors of federal dollars to the university’s research.

“It’s a big deal for us,” said Dan Nordquist, associate vice president for research at the school.

In addition, federal workers from the Agriculture Research Service help faculty and students with their research projects, and those workers are part of the nonessential employees who’ve been furloughed.

The university, like many other entities dependent on federal agencies, is in a holding pattern, Nordquist said.

“We’re looking at what other institutions are doing,” he said. “Many of them are doing the same thing we’re doing.”

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