PORTLAND, Maine — With Congress unable to reach a spending deal before its midnight deadline, many U.S. government operations screeched to a halt Tuesday, leaving Mainers who rely on federal aid for housing, food and heating oil in a state of uncertainty.
While most federal programs set up to help the neediest Americans pay for essentials will continue to issue checks in the short-term, the clouds darken if the shutdown continues for a lengthy period.
“I think we’re going to be OK for a couple of weeks,” said Douglas Gardner, director of the Portland Department of Health and Human Services. “But if [the shutdown] goes into November, it’ll be a different story. … If it continues beyond a couple of weeks, it really could change the operation of the federal government from [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] to DHHS.”
Gov. Paul LePage echoed that sentiment Tuesday, saying that the shutdown will not affect many state programs and employees if it is resolved by the end of the week, though some 280 federal employees within the Maine Army National Guard have been put on furlough until further notice.
The Democrat-led U.S. Senate has refused to pass a federal budget or continuing resolution that would alter President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform law — the Affordable Care Act, also commonly called Obamacare — while their counterparts in the Republican-controlled House pushed for spending plans that would cut funding for the law or delay its implementation.
LePage said most state services won’t be affected by the standoff, even if they are paid for with federal money.
“Although some positions and programs in state agencies are federally funded, all functions of state government will proceed as normal through the end of the week,” LePage said Tuesday in a written statement. “If the shutdown continues for an extended period, then it could affect some state agencies.”
Not surprisingly, multiple Maine Democrats and Republicans issued statements Tuesday blaming the other party for the inability to compromise and the resultant government shutdown.
“As lawmakers it is always our job to make sure government works for the people,” said Maine Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, in a written statement. “The fact that one small group from one political party is blackmailing the rest of the country is shameful. Because of their actions, here in Maine, some folks will be prevented from moving forward with their home loans, thousands will lose their paycheck and scores of businesses will be put on hold until this mess is cleaned up.”
Vic Berardelli of Newburgh, chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus, countered that “Republican House members were acting reasonably and … there was room for compromise.”
“I don’t see any media stories about [U.S. Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid saying we won’t compromise,” said Berardelli by phone Tuesday. “The Democratic members on the Senate side are saying ‘my way or the highway.’ If anyone’s doing the stonewalling regarding the shutdown it’s the Democrats.”
With the government shutdown Tuesday, Acadia National Park joined National Park Service destinations across the country in closing down.
Federal departments each filed contingency plans in advance of the shutdown to outline how they would respond if it came to fruition. More than 800,000 federal workers were expected to be furloughed and only programs and employees deemed essential to the protection of people and property were considered exempt from the shutdown.
Maine-based cPort Credit Union announced Tuesday it will offer financial assistance to federal employees being furloughed, by allowing those workers to skip a month’s loan payment, providing interest-free three-month loan extensions, or issuing interest-free 30-day loans to offset missed paychecks.
Mail carriers, active duty military personnel, weather scientists and air traffic controllers were expected to stay on the job Tuesday, as were those responsible for supporting school lunch, Social Security, Medicare and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — SNAP, formerly known as food stamps — payments, which would all reportedly continue to be made.
Similarly, federal payments for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, often known as TANF, and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, programs will continue to be made through October, Portland’s Gardner said.
WIC provides assistance to low-income mothers and children determined to be at “nutrition risk.” In Maine, about 26,000 people benefit from the WIC program each year, receiving nearly $13 million in annual food aid.
About 26,000 Mainers also receive monthly TANF benefits.
“The checks are going to continue to be processed, but there won’t be anybody there to answer technical questions,” Gardner said of the federal agencies responsible for the welfare programs.
Gardner said if the shutdown lingers beyond about a month, he expects to see WIC and TANF allocations drying up. The idea that federal programs and services could limp on for a little while without a budget or funding resolution in place — but that challenges would begin creeping up before winter — was a common refrain Tuesday across Maine.
For example, by Oct. 15, federal courts in Bangor and Portland will have to cut back operations, likely limiting the processing of civil actions and employee hours, U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock told the Bangor Daily News on Monday.
By November, the Maine State Housing Authority will need confirmation of its allocation of federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance — or LIHEAP — funds in order to begin cutting checks to heating oil providers for the cold weather season.
MaineHousing spokeswoman Deborah Turcotte told the BDN that 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.
Although active duty military personnel will remain on the job, the shutdown affects 280 civilian Maine National Guard employees, Maj. Michael Steinbuchel, spokesman for both the Maine Air National Guard and Maine Army National Guard, said Tuesday.
The shutdown also is affecting groups one might not expect. For example, the Maine Historical Society and the Bowdoin College Museum of Art had to find a replacement speaker for an event scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 2, at Bowdoin College. Smithsonian Curator Eleanor Jones Harvey canceled last-minute because of the shutdown.
BDN writer Nok-Noi Ricker contributed to this report.