Portland Press Herald


Washington Bureau Chief

As the federal government shutdown reached Day Two on Wednesday, various state and local agencies that stand to be affected took a business-as-usual approach, saying they hoped the shutdown would not last much longer, but also acknowledging that adequate funding becomes more uncertain the longer the impasse continues.

While furloughs of federal workers and the closure of national parks and monuments have been among the most immediate and visible effects of the shutdown that began Tuesday, the effect will widen if Congress fails to come to an agreement and the shutdown continues for more than a few weeks. The contingency plans for most agencies provide funding for programs for several more weeks.


Health care, food

John Martins, spokesman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said his department’s focus initially is on ensuring that clients get the aid they need in the short term.

The program that would be affected most, he said, is the Women’s Infants and Children’s nutrition program, known as WIC. Run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, WIC provides supplementary food assistance to income-eligible pregnant women and mothers with dependent children under the age of 5. The income limit is $28,694 for a family of two or $43,568 for a family of four. WIC serves 26,000 clients in Maine, providing them with infant formula, fresh fruit and vegetables and a range of grocery items.

Lisa Burgess Hodgkins, who directs the program, said she expects to have enough money to cover both existing clients and new applicants through the end of November. As for how her agency would respond if that federal money runs out because of a prolonged shutdown, Hodgkins said, “We haven’t had those conversations yet. We are hoping that things get resolved before the end of the month.”

Medicaid, also known as MaineCare, is not affected. Two other federal subsidy programs — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps — are also not expected to see an immediate effect, according to Martins.

But the shutdown is more complex than just subsidy payments. Many state employees are funded, at least partially, with federal dollars.


“We are doing an analysis of our staffing and the potential impact, while looking for federal guidance as to how to proceed,” Martins said in an email Wednesday. “Much of this work is based on the timing of grant funding, how much funding we have received from the feds (pre or post shutdown) and what the feds say it can be used for.”

Housing, heating, transportation

For MaineHousing, a state agency that oversees a variety of federally funded housing-related programs, the biggest programs that could be affected are the housing subsidy known as Section 8 and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, said public information officer Deborah Turcotte.

Only two days into the shutdown, the information the agency is receiving about how it could be affected is changing.

“Initially, we thought we’d be able to fund Section 8 through the end of December,” Turcotte said. “On Tuesday, we learned that payment would be good through October.”

Funding for November and December is now up in the air, she said.


Mike Halsey, executive director of the South Portland Housing Authority, said his federally funded programs, including Section 8, are funded on a calendar-year cycle.

“Theoretically, that money is available; but I’m not going to issue checks to landlords until I’m sure,” he said.

If landlords who accept Section 8 vouchers are forced to go a month or more without getting payments, they could evict the tenants, Halsey said.

“I haven’t gotten a lot of calls yet. I’m not sure it’s sunken in,” he said.

For LIHEAP, MaineHousing usually knows by this time of year how much funding will be allocated to Maine. Last year, $34.9 million in heating assistance was distributed to 55,000 households in the state. That amount reflected a 10 percent cut because of the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration.

This year, Turcotte said, MaineHousing has no idea what Maine’s share will be.


“Once we find out, we’ll kick into overdrive to get those benefits out,” she said.

Turcotte said reports that MaineHousing’s first-time homebuyers program would be shuttered temporarily were incorrect. That program, which provides zero-down-payment home loans to eligible borrowers, is unaffected.

Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, said his agency will see no immediate effects. The Federal Highway Administration, which provides a large chunk of the Maine DOT budget, is funded through the end of the 2014 federal fiscal year. However, if the shutdown persists, his department could run into permitting problems with two federal agencies: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If that’s the case, he said, some projects could be delayed or stopped.


About 97,000 lunches and 43,000 breakfasts are served daily in Maine to students who receive free or reduced-price lunches through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program. Walter Beesley, director of the food services program at the Maine Department of Education, said USDA officials have told the state that schools will continue to be reimbursed, even in an extended shutdown scenario.

However, the funds to support the 10 staff members in Beesley’s office who administer the program in Maine could be cut. The program — including those staff salaries — is funded with federal dollars.


“When November comes, I’m not sure what will happen,” Beesley said, but he sought to reassure parents that children in the program probably would be protected.

“Our goal is to make sure they students are taken care of, and they should be OK,” Beesley said.

The agency’s most immediate problem, Beesley said, was the fact that the USDA’s website was down, preventing his staff from getting access to resources. Visitors to the site found a message stating that the website was unavailable “due to the lapse in federal government funding” and directing them to other generic pages with information on the shutdown.

Michael Wilson, chief financial officer for Portland schools, said no federally funded programs would be affected immediately, but that could change if the impasse persists. The school district and many others receive money via several federal grants, but most of that money already has been committed or is exempt from the shutdown.

For instance, special education funding, Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind) funding and Perkins grants, which support career and technical education, are approved and funded for the school year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it will continue to fund the school meals program through October.


“Thankfully, there is no immediate impact on our schools,” said Justin Costa, who chairs the Portland Board of Public Education’s Finance Committee. “In the long term, any economic downturn caused by the shutdown could result in less state aid to our schools and jeopardize important educational programming.”

Although some other states already have had to close their Head Start programs, Maine’s Head Start programs are funded through the current school year. The program, funded by the Department of Health and Human Services, provides low-income preschoolers with education and nutrition services.

However, the shutdown is affecting some lesser-known school programs.

Fran Seeley, 72, of Portland, is one of 125 employees of a federally funded program for schools in Cumberland and York counties. These “foster grandparents” help elementary school teachers in the classroom, paying particular attention to children who have advanced needs.

Seeley said she plans to keep going to work until she’s told not to, but her program is set to lose funding by Oct. 15, according to Mike Tarpinian, president and CEO Opportunity Alliance, a community action agency serves 20,000 individuals and families in Cumberland County.



Acadia National Park isn’t the only park where visitors are being turned away.

Cobscook Bay State Park in far Down East Maine closed Wednesday because the land is actually part of the federally owned Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge. The Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands manages about 800 of the refuge’s 29,000 acres under a decades-old operating agreement.

Bill Kolodnicki, Moosehorn’s refuge manager, said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had to ask the state to close the Cobscook Bay campground because of liability concerns and the fact there is no federal staff available to work because of the shutdown. A boat ramp popular with recreational and some commercial boaters also has been closed.

The refuge also had to cancel three high school cross-country meets and a trail maintenance crew that drew people from across the country. On Wednesday afternoon, Kolodnicki was preparing to leave Moosehorn and will be prohibited from returning — along with all other refuge staff except law enforcement — until the budget situation is resolved.

“It’s very hard for our staff and for the public,” he said.

Veterans, defense


Roughly 170 workers have been furloughed at the Naval Sea Systems Command’s supervisor of shipbuilding office at Bath Iron Works as a result of the shutdown, NAVSEA spokesman Chris Johnson said. That is in addition to the 1,500 workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard who have been sent home.

One of the largest groups that would be affected severely by a prolonged shutdown is disabled veterans, military retirees and their surviving spouses.

Veterans will continue to receive medical care at facilities such as the Togus hospital near Augusta because those accounts are funded a year ahead of schedule. But the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs stated in a “field guide to the government shutdown” that funding for processing and payments of pensions and compensation for education and rehabilitation programs will continue only through late October.

After that, “claims processing and payments in these programs would be suspended,” the VA said.

Members of Congress have discussed a legislative patch to address the benefits.

“If payments are suspended, veterans will not be denied what they are entitled to. Veterans will be paid retroactively once funding is in place,” said Ed Gilman, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.


Maine veterans received $420 million in disability compensation and pensions in fiscal year 2012, according to the VA. The state has an estimated 130,000 veterans.

Peter Ogden, director of the Maine Bureau of Veterans Services, said his department is receiving regular updates from the VA about the situation. They also are receiving calls from concerned veterans and family members. But the department is not yet at the point of discussing how to respond if pension and disability compensation payments stop arriving.

“I’m concerned, but I’m also an optimistic person,” Ogden said. “There are a lot of concerned people out there, and those concerned people will put pressure on their congressional (representatives) to fix this.”

Gov. Paul LePage late Wednesday urged Mainers to demand that Congress act to put National Guard employees back to work. About 400 in Maine were furloughed this week. He also said that guardsmen and women should be included in the Pay Our Military Act that passed before the shutdown and guaranteed pay for active-duty military members.

“Some of these men and women have been deployed multiple times,” LePage said in a statement. “Now they are being used to make a political point. This is a shameful tactic to use against Mainers who have put their life on the line to protect our freedoms.”

Steve SanPedro, commander of the Portland post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he had not heard from any members who have not received their benefits.

“I was a little worried about getting a (disability) check on Tuesday, but it came,” he said. “Next month, who knows?”

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