Cris Ritchie — Editor
October 2, 2013
HAZARD—Approximately 800,000 federal workers across the nation are not at work this week after Congress failed last week to approve a stop-gap measure to fund the federal government. Some effects of the first government shutdown in 17 years are now being felt locally.
The White House ordered the shutdown of non-essential services following the congressional impasse. Members of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives had approved multiple resolutions to continue funding the government, but attached measures to either repeal, defund, or otherwise delay the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The Senate, controlled by Democrats, refused to approve the plan as long as it contained measures to affect the health care law, resulting in last week’s shutdown.
Despite the halt in most government services, not a lot has changed at the local level thus far, though there remains some uncertainty if the shutdown persists.
Social Security and unemployment payments were still to be sent out as usual, and the Eastern Kentucky Veterans Center in Hazard is operating normally. The U.S. Postal Service is also operating at normal levels, as the agency is exempt from federal furloughs.
Other agencies, such as the Mine Safety and Health Administration, were expected to see a drastic downturn in activities as nearly 1,400 of the agency’s 2,355 employees were to be furloughed, according to MSHA’s own plan released last month. MSHA will still maintain certain “key functions,” utilizing 768 employees to inspect specific mines across the country based on past history. They will also investigate accidents and miners’ complaints.
An employee in MSHA’s Hazard office declined to comment last week, directing any questions to the agency’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. A call made to MSHA’s main telephone number was greeted with a message noting certain government activities have been suspended due to a “lapse in funding.”
Local residents depending on the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, can expect at least a week’s delay in funding to help pay electric bills for the winter months.
LKLP Executive Director Rick Baker said the sign up period of LIHEAP has been delayed a week, and at present participants won’t be able to sign up until Nov. 12, a delay that the area’s low-income families were not counting on.
“Typically, people who use this program year after year, they know when it starts,” Baker said. “They plan on having that money. It’s having an effect on low-income people.”
Additionally, the federal government has not yet allocated LIHEAP funds to each state, and if the shutdown persists and that award is delayed, it could push back the sign-up period even further.
Likely to be alarming to mothers with young children, on Tuesday of last week the government also suspended funding of the WIC program during the shutdown. WIC provides education, nutritious foods, and access to certain health-care services to low-income mothers with young children.
According to news reports, WIC services remain online for the time being by utilizing a $125 million contingency fund that was only expected to last for a week, as nearly 9 million people rely on the program.
Anya Weber, information officer for Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said on Wednesday there has been no interruption of services to Kentucky’s WIC participants due to the shutdown. In 2012, she added, 130,000 people participated in the program.
Weber said last week the cabinet will be able to “maintain business as usual in the near term,” and officials are evaluating other programs relying on federal grants to determine how long they will be able to function at present levels. The states’s Medicaid program, for instance, has funding to continue.
“A number of state programs that rely on federal funds have prior year grant balances they are still spending,” Weber said. “For those, as long as the federal draw process functions, we should be OK. However, not all programs have prior year grant balances. That process of completing the cabinet wide analysis will take a day or so to fully complete.”
In terms of recreation, anyone coming to Perry County expecting to use the campgrounds near Buckhorn Lake’s dam will not be given access, as the U.S. Corps of Engineers closed that portion of the park due to the shutdown. It will not reopen until funding is reinstated. Other recreation areas at Corps lakes are also being affected, according to a press release issued on Tuesday. State and local parks, however, have not been affected.
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers understands the impact that these actions might have on the American recreating public if we are required to close our recreation areas,” said Col. Luke Leonard, Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District commander. “We know that this is a time of year when many vacationing families are using or planning to use Corps recreation facilities, and we will reopen them for public use and enjoyment as quickly as possible.”
In the meantime, there is currently no end in sight for the shutdown, with Republican House members unwilling to budge on a continuing resolution without concessions on the health care law, and Democrats unwilling to accept any changes to it.