Federal government shutdown would imperil key Acadia tourism season, flu shots and fuel aid

Taking advantage of the balmy temperatures, two tourists walk along the path that encircles the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park Saturday, June 1, 2012. Bar Harbor and the Porcupine Islands spread beyond the tourists.
Brian Swartz | BDN
Taking advantage of the balmy temperatures, two tourists walk along the path that encircles the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park Saturday, June 1, 2012. Bar Harbor and the Porcupine Islands spread beyond the tourists.
By Bill Trotter and Seth Koenig, BDN Staff
Posted Sept. 30, 2013, at 1:57 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — In Maine, a federal government shutdown does not signal the end of mail delivery but could affect a range of things from fall tourism to flu readiness. The hardest hit likely would be the neediest Mainers, whose federal aid for housing, heating and food could be jeopardized by a long shutdown.

A shutdown began as of midnight Monday as lawmakers in Washington were unable to break a stalemate over a government spending resolution.

Mail carriers, military personnel and air traffic controllers are among the federal employees who will continue working through a government shutdown.

However, Acadia National Park, one of the state’s top attractions, will be closed during a crucial fall stretch for tourism.

If the stalemate lingers too deep into the future, U.S. courts would begin curbing hours and caseloads. Federally funded flu shot programs would not be carried out. And while federal subsidies for education would continue to be disbursed, payments for low-income housing vouchers, heating oil assistance and food supplements could be at risk.

U.S. agencies overseeing federal taxes, housing programs, energy, the environment and labor largely would drop down to emergency-only skeleton crews, absorbing the majority of the 800,000 to 1 million employee furloughs expected in the shutdown. Mainers waiting for grant allocations, program applications, reports or audits to be processed by those departments won’t receive answers until the federal budget battle is hashed out.

The Republican-led House has voted to fund government operations only if President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform law is stripped of funding. The Democrat-controlled Senate has refused to undercut the Affordable Care Act — commonly called Obamacare — leaving the two chambers locked in disagreement just hours before an Oct. 1 deadline to agree on a federal budget or continuing resolution that would pay for federal services.

If no compromise is reached, it would represent the 17th federal government shutdown since 1976, with the longest — and most recent — of those coming during a 21-day political standoff in 1995.

Unless a last-minute agreement is reached in Congress, Acadia National Park will shut down completely Tuesday — for the first time since the 1995 federal government shutdown.

“The park will be forced to close,” Len Bobinchock, deputy superintendent of Acadia National Park, said Monday. “We have no choice in the matter.”

But unlike the 1995 shutdown, which happened in November, a shutdown in October likely would significantly affect the economy of Mount Desert Island, where the vast majority of the park is located. The island’s fall tourism business has increased markedly since the early 1990s, especially Bar Harbor’s cruise ship business, which has gone from a couple dozen visits each year to more than 100.

Chris Fogg, executive director of the local Chamber of Commerce, said that 41 cruise ship visits are scheduled for Bar Harbor in October. Cruise ship passengers routinely are taken on bus tours through the park, including to the top of Cadillac Mountain, when they are in port.

If the park is shut down, all roads will be gated or barricaded, all restrooms and campgrounds in the park will be closed and emergency-response staffing will be kept to a minimum.

“We’re very concerned about a government shutdown,” said Fogg, who added that area shops, restaurants and other attractions still could keep tourists busy. “We hope that people still come.”

In addition to the national parks, federal agencies to be hit hardest by the government shutdown likely will be the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Department of Labor.

“Our services will still go on, but if there’s a company or somebody who needs a permit from EPA, that will obviously be put on hold,” said Jessamine Logan, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. “We of course do have some contacts for essential EPA staff in the case of an environmental emergency, but any type of administrative processing will be put on hold.”

The Washington Post reported that the Department of Health and Human Services would put holds on grants for substance abuse and child service programs, would have diminished capacity to respond to an outbreak and likely would have to skip its annual flu shot rollout.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced that while funding for the school lunch program and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — SNAP, formerly food stamps — would continue under a government shutdown, no money would be available to support the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known by the acronym WIC.

WIC provides assistance to low-income mothers and children determined to be a “nutrition risk.” In Maine, about 26,000 people benefit from the WIC program each year, receiving nearly $13 million in annual aid.

If the budget standoff lingers, federal courts in Portland and Bangor also will begin to see effects. Court operations would continue without changes until Oct. 15, U.S. District Judge John A. Woodcock told the Bangor Daily News.

“After that … the District of Maine would explore ways to cut back its operations, including, for example, restricting the processing of civil actions, limiting the hours of court personnel, particularly purely administrative employees, and analyzing court operations to find ways to minimize expenses in order to have the least impact on the public we serve,” he said.

Deborah Turcotte, spokeswoman for the Maine State Housing Authority, said without a federal budget or continuing resolution in place, state and local agencies would not know how much in Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program — or LIHEAP — funding will be made available for the start of the new fiscal year Tuesday. Disbursal of heating oil payments would be jeopardized if Congress doesn’t agree on a funding plan by November, when MaineHousing is scheduled to begin cutting checks to oil dealers on behalf of their low-income clients, Turcotte said.

Turcotte told the BDN MaineHousing received just less than $35 million in LIHEAP funds for the fiscal year ending Monday and distributed money to approximately 55,000 qualifying Maine households.

She said the fiscal year for low-income Section 8 housing vouchers lasts until Dec. 31, so funding should be available to cover that program for another three months, but if the congressional deadlock continues into 2014, those payments could be cut off as well.

BDN writer Judy Harrison contributed to this report.

CORRECTION:

A previous version of this story erroneously said that court operations would continue without changes until Oct. 13. The correct date is Oct. 15. In addition, a previous version incorrectly reported that 19,000 qualifying Maine households received LIHEAP funds in the last fiscal year. The correct number of households is 55,000.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/09/30/politics/federal-government-shutdown-would-imperil-key-acadia-tourism-season-flu-shots-and-fuel-aid/ printed on September 21, 2014