Government shutdown spreading pain as it takes hold in Minnesota

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ and RANDY FURST , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: October 2, 2013 - 6:19 AM

Parks, offices and services quickly shut down. Aid programs and tribes prepared to lose funding very soon.

Marcus Huff traveled 60 miles from Pine River on Tuesday morning to find the card center door locked at the Minneapolis Social Security office, where hundreds of others needing anything but the most basic services were turned away.

“I feel very, very inconvenienced,” said Huff, who needed a replacement card.

Across Minnesota, the federal government shutdown abruptly cut short workdays for thousands of federal workers, turning routine errands into major headaches, creating insecurity at Social Services offices, and locking the gates at national parks and recreation areas just as fall colors are about to reach their peak.

Among some 18,000 federal workers in the state, nearly half of whom could be furloughed indefinitely, was Dustin Hawkins, an electrician with the 934th Airlift Wing of the U.S. Air Force Reserve. Hawkins already has been furloughed six days this year because of budget cuts related to the sequester. Now he was being ordered off the job.

“I still can’t believe Congress has done this,” Hawkins said as he joined a group of pickets at Fort Snelling. “As of today… I am no longer getting paid.”

State officials said Tuesday they are still trying to determine the full impact of the shutdown in Minnesota, which gets about $10 billion a year from the federal government for health, welfare, education and other core services.

Many programs will continue as before, but money for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance to Families, SNAP, will run out by the end of the month. Chuck Johnson, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, said that by November, “There is no state appropriation to fall back on. That’s a concern.”

The Minnesota National Guard furloughed 1,207 of its civilian technicians — more than half of its full-time military support staff. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, posted a message on the Guard’s Facebook page: “I regret that our government has shut down,” he said. “Unfortunately we don’t have that option. Please continue to do what you’ve always done — serve the nation. For those of our civilian team mates who will be furloughed, I’m sorry.”

The Guard statement added: “While the Minnesota National Guard is required by law to follow this Department of Defense furlough policy, it is important that the people of Minnesota know that our citizen-soldiers and airmen remain ready to respond to state or federal emergencies.”

On a bridge overlooking Crosstown Hwy. 62, a dozen federal government workers — some from the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center, others from the Air Force Reserve station — held signs in protest.

“They’re pretty upset,” said Jane Nygaard, national vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees District 8, which covers Minnesota. “This is tough times for them. They don’t understand why Congress can’t get together and do something right.

Park closures cost schools

At the vast St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, visitor centers were shuttered and all public and school programs canceled. National parks and roads are closed except for thruways, and all programs and permits for special events are rescinded.

Chris Stein, the park’s superintendent, said that besides visitor centers in St. Croix Falls, Wis., and Arcola Mills, Minn., other park areas frequented by the public also are closed. “Rangers who do encounter people will be asking them to leave,” Stein said.

In northern Minnesota, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness remains open for recreation, said outfitter Steve Piragis, owner of Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely. “We’ve been looking around and calling people, and everything’s open,” he said. “Entry points, parking lots, everything.”

Oct. 1 begins the season when campers can issue themselves permits at wilderness entry points. For emergencies, Piragis said, the St. Louis County rescue squad is always on duty.

Minnesota hunters will find themselves barred from hunting on some federal lands, including National Wildlife Refuges and waterfowl production areas.

At the Social Security office in Minnesota, manager Ismail Mohamed said seniors will still get their checks, but “anything else is not essential.” He said between 600 and 700 people like Huff show up every day to replace a lost Social Security cards or get new ones or apply for other benefits.

Peter Zakiel took his daughter Peterline, 15, out of school so she could apply for a Social Security card. She came to the Twin Cities from Liberia a month ago. “I took off work to come here,” he said.

Questions from veterans

John Kriesel, director of Anoka County’s Veteran Services Division, said veterans have called with lots of questions. He said all those receiving disability compensation will continue to collect benefits. But there could be delays in applying for compensation and in appeals.

The Veterans Benefits Administration will be fully staffed through Friday, department spokesman Peter Panos said. “If this continues, a very small portion of the administrative staff will be affected, but this should have no effect on the veterans or their family members.”

At the Food and Drug Administration, layoffs could lead to delays in approving lifesaving drugs, treatments and medical devices. The shutdown could slow research at the Mayo Clinic, which gets much of its funding from the National Institutes of Health.

The University of Minnesota, which gets $53 million in federal research grants, expects no disruptions, although new grants could be delayed. Students who rely on Federal Pell Grants or Federal Direct Loans for tuition should be unaffected.

The state’s American Indian tribes could be hit hard. Melanie Benjamin, chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, compared the government standoff to a poker game, with politicians “wagering our house payments, our prescriptions … our schools, our groceries.” Tribes rely heavily on federal aid, with some schools getting a third of their money from the federal government.

In St. Paul on Tuesday afternoon, owners of the Liffey, Burger Moe’s, Tom Reid’s and the Eagle Street Grille offered a free beer to any federal worker who showed a valid government ID. “We want government employees to know we think they are all essential,” said Kevin Geisen, owner of Eagle Street Grille.

 

Staff writers Jim Anderson, Kevin Duchschere, Kevin Giles, Paul Levy, Tom Meersman, Jim Ragsdale, Jenna Ross, Mary Jane Smetanka, and Doug Smith contributed to this report.

rfurst@startribune.com • 612-673-7382

Follow Kevin Diaz on Twitter @StribDiaz

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  • Jeanne Holler, deputy refuge manager at the Minnesota Valley Wildlife Center, prepared the bad news Tuesday in Bloomington.

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  • local impact

    Closed: All national parks and scenic and recreation areas.

    Furloughed: Minnesota has 18,349 federal workers, and half or more could be home indefinitely. The Minnesota National Guard furloughed 1,207 civilian technicians.

    Reduced service: The Social Security Administration stopped issuing cards. The Veterans Benefits Administration will stop hearing appeals on disability rulings.

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