When will the federal money run out?
It’s the question looming in the minds of leaders of Minnesota government agencies affected by the federal government’s partial shutdown.
So far, the vast majority of Minnesotans’ lives haven’t changed since the Dec. 22 shutdown affecting nine of 15 federal agencies, with many federal funding streams still flowing on automated systems. But with no end in sight for the stalemate in Washington, leaders in Minnesota are scrambling to figure out what, exactly, will be disrupted and when — and make long-term contingency plans to handle it.
“After this week or this weekend … if there’s no agreement, we will start doing long-range planning,” said Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans, who is coordinating those efforts among state agencies that administer federal programs, including approximately 3,000 federally funded state workers.
An additional 17,000 federal employees in various agencies work in Minnesota, Frans said, though he didn’t know how many are furloughed during the shutdown.
This shutdown is trickier than most, Frans said. Most shutdowns last just a few days.
“Most of the time, shutdowns are the whole federal government,” Frans said. But with some federal departments already funded, he said, “it is harder to understand what the effects are going to be.”
The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that provides food debit cards for low-income families, for instance, will likely have enough revenue to run through the end of January, Frans said. State leaders will have to decide whether to use Minnesota money to continue funding it after that, he added, not knowing for sure whether it will all be reimbursed.
The federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program appeared to have about six months of funding still available, Frans said.
“You have to look at every department and every appropriation and see whether it’s funded and for how long,” he said.
The shutdown’s impact may be greatest on American Indian tribes that receive federal money directly.
The Bois Forte Reservation in northern Minnesota, for instance, has some federal Bureau of Indian Affairs police officers who are now working without pay, said Tribal Chairwoman Cathy Chavers.
As part of a commodities program, the tribe recently received a regular shipment of meat, cheese, fruit, grains and other food, Chavers said, but it’s unclear how long those deliveries will continue.
Tribal executives put out a video Thursday afternoon explaining their contingency plans to band members, stressing they would be making cuts where necessary to keep medical and other services open despite the government shutdown.
Chavers said the band has instituted a hiring freeze and is seeking voluntary layoffs. Leaders are postponing some events, putting off major purchases and limiting travel.
Like state government leaders, tribal leaders are doing their best to figure out how long funding will last for various programs.
“It’s hard because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Chavers said. “Who knows how long this is going to last?”
The business of agriculture
Farm Service Agency offices had enough funding to stay open through Dec. 28, said Megan Roberts, a Mankato-based University of Minnesota Extension educator in ag business management. Farmers have been inconvenienced since then by not being able to sign up for some programs at the local office, she said, but if the shutdown ends soon the impact will be minimal.
Farmers may be lamenting the loss of supply-and-demand statistics that the U.S. Department of Agriculture typically provides, however. That information can guide them on market prices.
A prolonged shutdown also could delay the start of at least one agriculture-related business.
Brian Bohman, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Soil, Water and Climate, has been researching ways to use drones and satellite sensors for precision agriculture. He’s poised to start a business helping potato farmers pinpoint fertilizer needs through technology.
But he needs a $225,000 National Science Foundation grant to make it happen, he said. He applied for the grant in December but won’t hear back until the government is up and running again.
To make it work this year, it needs to be ready for the growing season, he said.
“If this doesn’t get straightened out, I’m kind of dead on arrival,” Bohman said. “I might have to change my plans or drop this all together.”
Halted national park services
Though many national parks remain accessible to visitors, most are not providing such visitor services as restrooms, trash collection and facilities and road maintenance, according to the park website.
At Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, staff got some extra time after the shutdown to check lake ice thickness and stake out a snowmobiling course, said Christina Hausman, executive director of the park’s nonprofit partner, the Voyageurs National Park Association.
Ash Trail Lodge co-owner Steve Wieber said he is grateful for the extra work the park service employees accomplished, but he worries a prolonged government shutdown could hurt his business hosting and feeding snowmobilers if other lake trails aren’t marked and groomed in the park.
“The lake trails are important because they basically connect destinations that have more land trails to ride,” Wieber said. “It’s all part of a network … the better the riding on all of those, the more people are going to make a trip here instead of going to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and spending their money there.”
Hausman said the Park Association is raising money to provide a special grant to fund some winter operations, such as grooming some ski and snowmobile trails and opening the Rainy Lake Visitor Center for some weekend hours.
“The two main goals are: Keep the park safe through the shutdown … and allow people to enjoy these places that are all of ours,” Hausman said. “We love our winter recreation in Minnesota, and Voyageurs is a wonderful place to get outside.”
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102