MARK E. RONDEAU
County News Editor
BENNINGTON -- Vermont state government is ready to deal with a short-term federal shutdown and expects disruptions to be minor, according to Gov. Peter Shumlin.
The first federal government shutdown in 17 years began at midnight Tuesday after last-minute moves in Congress failed to break a bitter budget standoff over President Obama’s health care law.
In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Shumlin said Vermont is prepared. He added, however, that the move of Republicans in the U.S. House to shutdown the government in an attempt to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act will "slow economic recovery and cost jobs."
The ACA -- more popularly known as "Obamacare" -- began enrolling people on Tuesday.
Shumlin called House Republicans irresponsible for "holding the entire federal government hostage to their political ideology" in voting to shut down much of the government, but said Vermont is well-positioned to deal with a short-term closure and expects disruptions to be minimal.
"The most significant and long-lasting negative impact of this shutdown will be on consumer and business confidence, slowing our economic recovery and costing this nation jobs," Shumlin said. He noted that while federal employees in Vermont deemed "essential" will not be affected, those considered non-essential will be out of work for some period of time and faced with that economic hardship.
"Many of these are people who live paycheck to paycheck," he said. "They do not deserve to be pawns in a game of political chicken."
Shumlin and Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding said Vermont has taken steps to prepare for a shutdown. Among those, the Department of Finance and Management and the Treasurer’s Office have been monitoring the state’s expenditures and cash-flow position to minimize the impact. In addition, departments were instructed last week to speed up all possible federal expenses due to the state.
"The State of Vermont’s cash position has improved by $97.3 million over the three business days from last Thursday to this morning, $93 million of which are federal funds," said State Treasurer Beth Pearce. "This puts Vermont on the strongest possible footing going into the federal government shutdown."
According to Spaulding, if the shutdown is short, a matter of a few days, the impacts on most Vermonters will be relatively minor, but if it were to go on for weeks, the odds are high that thousands of Vermonters will be seriously hurt.
"Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits are not directly impacted by the shutdown," Spaulding said. "Some federal programs like Three Squares should be in place, at least for October, but would likely be on hold in a prolonged shutdown. There are some other critical programs that rely on federal funds like Reach Up, where we will pay to provide benefits for now, and ask for reimbursement from the feds later. Based on prior experience, we expect that to occur, but, obviously, if a shutdown looks like it will drag on, we will need to reevaluate our position, because no state has the capacity to pick up federal program costs."
The shutdown is immediately impacting some federal employees in Vermont. Spaulding said that essential workers like air traffic controllers, law enforcement officers, and postal workers will remain on the job, but could see a delay in their pay if a shutdown is prolonged. However, dozens, if not hundreds, of other Vermonters who are considered non-essential employees working in areas like housing, economic development, visa and passport processing, and regulatory agencies are not working as a result of the federal closure.
"I appreciate the hard work of Vermont’s Congressional delegation to end this budgetary standoff in Washington, and ensure the services we rely on are available," Shumlin said. "We will continue to monitor the situation and, if this irresponsible stand-off continues, do everything fiscally reasonable to protect vulnerable Vermonters."
Contacted Tuesday afternoon, Democratic Rep. Peter Welch said he didn’t know when the shutdown would end. He fears that those Republicans who want to shut down the government might ally with those who want to use the upcoming need to raise the federal debt ceiling to extract concessions from the Democrats and the crisis could go on for several weeks.
Welch said the debt ceiling vote -- to pay for bills already incurred by the government -- is expected to be necessary on Oct. 17. "That’s even more of a threat," he said.
Not funding the government in order to kill a law -- the ACA -- is "an illegitimate process," Welch said. The law had been passed by Congress, litigated in the Supreme Court and in effect ratified in the re-election of President Obama.
What is needed is for GOP Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, to introduce a "clean" continuing resolution to fund the government, that is, one without politically motivated conditions. If this is done, then Democrats and some Republicans would constitute a majority to keep the government open, Welch said.
Vt. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, called the House attempt to undo Obamacare by closing the government "a precedent for blackmail that we cannot allow," Vermont Public Radio reported. During an eleventh-hour interview Monday night on MSNBC, Sanders said Americans are "profoundly disgusted" because "a handful of right-wing extremists are trying to annul, do away with, the election results of a year ago. They haven’t quite caught on that Obama won."
A news update on his official website quotes Sanders as saying the government closure could be "devastating" to Vermont and the U.S. He said passport offices like one in St. Albans could close, and people applying for federally-backed mortgages will face delays. Programs to help small businesses and Head Start might eventually shut down. Additionally, people who are applying for Social Security, Medicare and veterans’ benefits will face a significantly slower process.
Senior Vt. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, expressed similar sentiments Monday on the Senate floor before the shutdown took effect. "I am disappointed that a small group of extremists continue to insist on shutting down the Federal government, placing their own political agenda ahead of the good of the country," he said. "The obsession with defunding or delaying the Affordable Care Act, which will continue to be implemented in the event of a government shutdown, is out of touch and it poses serious threats for our economy and for the well-being of thousands of hardworking federal employees and those who rely on important government services."
Contact Mark Rondeau at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @banner_religion