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Minnesota shutdown impact spotty so far

Signs posted at the U.S.D.A. Rural Development, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency Tuesday show the impact a federal government shutdown has on local services. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)

ST. PAUL — The impact of a federal government shutdown on Minnesotans was spotty Tuesday, but an extended one would cause more widespread problems.

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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,” 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.”

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.