Federal furloughs begin

-A A +A

Government shutdown under way

By Martin Salazar

Optic Staff and Wire

As Congress continued to bicker over the federal budget on Tuesday, Fort Union National Monument Superintendent Charles Strickfaden was busy executing a contingency plan to shut down the monument.

“We are joining 401 other national park sites in closing due to the federal shutdown,” Strickfaden said. “What that means is the park will be closed to visitors. We will be furloughing 23 employees, and we will have several employees designated as essential to maintain security, utilities and infrastructure and essential administrative functions only.”
It was much the same way at federal offices throughout the country as employees deemed non-essential were sent home and essential employees carried on key functions.

A recording at the U.S. Forest Service’s Las Vegas Ranger Station notifies callers that “we are on furlough due to the lapse of federal government funding. . . I look forward to returning your message once funding has been restored.”

At the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge east of town, Refuge Manager Rob Larrañaga was preparing to furlough employees as of noon on Tuesday. He was also busy cancelling meetings, such as one scheduled with the Denver Zoo and New Mexico Highlands University to discuss research possibilities at the new Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area.

The Bureau of Land Management was suspending all services except law enforcement and emergency response functions. Statewide, the agency was furloughing 754 of its 817 employees and closing its recreation areas.

Other government services that Americans will be unable to get range from federally backed home loans to supplemental food assistance for children and pregnant women.

Not all services are grinding to a halt.

Those receiving Social Security and other government benefits will continue to receive their checks. Indeed, the local Social Security office remained opened, although only limited services were being provided. The U.S. Postal Service also continues to deliver mail.

And Joseph Griego, who runs the Head Start program in Las Vegas, said he doesn’t believe there will be an impact to that program because the funding is already in place.

First closure in 17 years
The shutdown and resulting furloughs is the result of Congress failing to meet the 12 a.m. Tuesday deadline for approving a budget and forwarding it to President Obama for consideration. It’s the first time in 17 years that a standoff over the budget has resulted in a federal government shutdown.

The sticking point is the Affordable Care Act. House Republicans want to insert a measure into the budget bill that delays the controversial law, also known as Obamacare. Democrats in both chambers of Congress, along with the president aren’t giving in, resulting in a stalemate.

Now the fingerpointing has begun.

“It is clear that House Republicans would rather see the government shut down, New Mexico workers furloughed, and services halted and delayed for many in our communities than allow millions of Americans access to affordable health care. . .,”  U.S. Rep Ben Ray Luján said in an emailed statement.  

“It’s time for House Republicans to stop playing games, stop trying to undermine the Affordable Care Act, and pass a clean bill that funds the government. The longer the Tea Party shutdown lasts, the longer the people of New Mexico will pay the price and the greater toll it will take on our economy.”

Congressman Steve Pearce, however, blamed Senate Democrats for the shutdown.

“Due to inaction by the Democrat-controlled Senate, the Federal Government shut down on Monday, September 30, at midnight. . .,” his website states. “Though Congressman Pearce will continue to work without pay, all of Rep. Pearce’s offices will be closed until the government reopens.”

Some funds keep flowing
The impact of the shutdown was mixed — immediate and far-reaching for some, annoying but minimal for others.

In Colorado, where flooding killed eight people earlier this month, emergency funds to help rebuild homes and businesses continued to flow — but federal worker furloughs were expected to slow it down.

National Guard soldiers rebuilding washed-out roads would apparently be paid on time — along with the rest of the country’s active-duty personnel — under a bill passed hours before the shutdown.

Federal workers would not see their pay affected right away. If a shutdown continues, all employees can expect to be paid on schedule on Oct. 15, 2013, for hours worked from Sept. 22 through Sept. 30.

Still, Marc Cevasco, who works in the Department of Veterans Affairs, said as he waited for a bus Tuesday that the uncertainty of how long the shutdown would last made his uneasy.

“Even if it’s just shut down for a week that’s a quarter of your pay this month. That means a lot to a lot of people,” he said.

With no telling how long the standoff will last, even programs not immediately affected could run out of cash.

“We are optimistic that something can be worked out and have contingency planning for this and any other emergency and look forward to returning to serve the public,” said Strickfaden, of Fort Union National Monument.