Vermont is in good shape to weather the federal government shutdown, but only if it ends quickly, state officials say.
“If this thing lasts more than a few days, we are going to seriously re-evaluate what we do,” Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding said Tuesday.
As of Tuesday, Congress’ failure to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government put a cork on a large amount of the federal funding that flows to Vermont and other states each month.
Vermont has some carry-forward funds to pick up the slack. But federal benefits programs distribute millions of dollars each month. In June, Vermonters received $12 million in food benefits through 3SquaresVt and $3 million in welfare benefits through Reach Up — and officials say Vermont doesn’t have the capacity to plug those holes for long.
“If this things drags on there are very serious ramifications,” Spaulding said.
Gov. Peter Shumlin offered limited assurance to Vermonters in a statement to the media released Tuesday. “We will continue to monitor the situation and, if this irresponsible standoff continues, do everything fiscally reasonable to protect vulnerable Vermonters,” Shumlin said.
State officials emphasize that everything is in flux. Some of them dialed into a phone call with the White House on Tuesday, but Spaulding said they weren’t able to get clear guidance. “The federal government itself is struggling to figure out how this is all going to work out. There were many questions you would hope for a clearer answer on,” he said.
On the call, Finance Commissioner Jim Reardon asked for reassurance that states would be reimbursed for taking care of program expenses in the short term, but, according to Spaulding, “they didn’t guarantee anything.”
Several major programs — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans’ health services and unemployment insurance — will stay up and running. New applications might be held up, however.
In some respects, Vermont is more buffered than other states from the fallout of the shutdown. Just 0.23 percent of federal employees work in Vermont, according to the Office of Personnel Management. The state is home to just one national park (in addition to a national forest and a 150-mile segment of the Appalachian Trail) — the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock.
State Treasurer Beth Pearce said in a statement Tuesday that Vermont is “on the strongest possible footing going into the federal government shutdown” because the state pulled down $93 million in federal funds over the past three business days. The bulk of those funds will be used to reimburse the state for federal benefits and services it has provided.
Still, the state is far from immune. Federal employees located in Vermont will bear the brunt of the impact, at least at first. There are roughly 4,200 of them, according to the Office of Personnel Management. Whether they are furloughed depends on whether the federal government has deemed them exempt — meaning their functions are essential — or non-exempt — meaning their roles are expendable, at least for the time being. Spaulding said the state doesn’t know the precise breakdown between exempt and non-exempt federal employees, but he estimates that “in excess of 1,000” were told to go home today when they arrived at work.
Whether they receive compensation is up to the whim of Congress, Spaulding said. “It’s a whole new world down there in Washington. They may not.”
State employees whose positions are partially or entirely funded with federal dollars will be spared, according to a memo Spaulding sent to all agency and department heads Monday. The state is covering those costs, for now.
Several of the programs hardest hit by the federal sequester are now facing further cutbacks.
The 1,000-member Vermont National Guard has put 450 technicians on furlough, according to Capt. Christopher Gookin, the Guard’s public affairs director. They won’t be paid for the lost time unless Congress passes legislation authorizing it.
The active guard and reserve members will remain at their stations, and they will be paid, but not until Congress passes a continuing resolution.
“We are still sorting out the details. We have to do a number of administrative functions to get the force ready and prepared, and to inform them about how it affects benefits and services,” Gookin said. “This is so involved. It’s like the F-35. I’ve got about 1,000 pages to read.”
Federal grants, given out once a year, are the lifeblood of Vermont’s seven Head Start programs. The programs receive their grants at different points during the year, and none of Vermont’s programs were scheduled to receive funding Oct. 1. But at least two — Champlain Valley Head Start and Central Vermont Community Action — are due to receive funding Nov. 1. If the shutdown is still in effect, “we’d have to look at closures,” said Paul Behrman, the Champlain Valley director.
The programs also depend on federal workers for training, technical assistance and policy guidance — that support system is dismantled for the duration of the shutdown, according to Behrman. “That support is not available and that’s a problem.”
The Reach Up program, which provides cash assistance to roughly 6,300 low-income families each month, relies on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds from the federal government. Spaulding said the state will pick up the tab for now, with the expectation that the federal government will pay the state back once it resumes its business.
“Based on prior experience, we expect that [reimbursement] to occur, but, obviously, if a shutdown looks like it will drag on, we will need to re-evaluate our position, because no state has the capacity to pick up federal program costs,” Spaulding said in a statement.
The state’s food benefits program serves roughly 50,000 families each month, using federal funding through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The October benefits have either been paid out or are in the process of being paid to families in Vermont. But, the state doesn’t have capacity to fund the payments, if the shutdown lasts into November, according to Reardon.
The shutdown put a clamp on Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) funding, which supports low-income pregnant women, mothers, and their children. Vermont, according to Reardon, will continue to fund the program on a “short-term” basis, using leftover funds from the last fiscal year.
According to Reardon and Spaulding, fuel assistance benefits are not distributed until November, so the state is in the clear as the long as the shutdown ends before then. If not? “If this thing were to stretch on, it would be a huge issue,” Spaulding said.
While Vermont only has one national park, but it has had to close its gates at peak foliage season, going into its busiest two weeks of the year.
Gardens will go untended and lawns unmowed at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Park in Woodstock, where most of the 26 employees were sent home Tuesday, according to assistant superintendent Christina Marts.
Congressional offices are also operating with a skeleton crew. Seventeen of the 30 staffers in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ office are on furlough. Rep. Peter Welch’s office is operating on a rotation — four of the 17 staff members are furloughed each day.
Sen. Patrick Leahy is keeping his full crew on board through Friday, because, according to spokeswoman Erica Chabot, “he believes there is a constitutional responsibility to help Vermonters with the transition to this government shutdown.” If the shutdown persists past Friday, some staff will be furloughed.