Federal shutdown impacts Nome and the region
They say you don’t miss something until it’s gone. It’s easy to complain about the federal government but in many areas of our lives the unseen and unobserved hand of the feds makes life a lot easier.
The current partial federal government shutdown began at midnight on December 22, 2018, over an impasse between President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to fund a border wall between Mexico and the United States and a Congress refusing to oblige.
Nine out of 15 departments, and about 800,000 federal employees are affected— some are furloughed, others are deemed essential and have to report to work without the promise of a paycheck. The departments are Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Dept. of Interior, Dept. of Transportation, State Department, Dept. of Agriculture, Justice Department and the Treasury Department.
There are some federal agencies, which we depend on everyday. Aviation would be dangerous in our region without the National Weather Service. And there are hundreds more ways we depend on federal money to live comfortable and productive lives.
The good news is that we continue to get mail as the United States Postal Service is not affected — USPS has to create its own revenue stream to stay afloat.
Most of those agencies, such as the Border Patrol and Customs, are locked up with nobody answering the phone. A group of TSA agents leaving the airport reported they were not being paid and had yet to hear whether they’d be receiving back pay. They said that whatever happens they’ll stay on the job.
Tom Sparks of the Bureau of Land Management in Nome left a phone message that due to the shutdown he’ll be out of his office and that he is not authorized to work. NOAA is also shuttered and webinars on improving communication of coastal flood warnings and on the Fourth National Climate Assessment have been postponed due to the government shutdown.
Kawerak is an organization, which depends heavily on federal funding for its myriad of services to the region. Melanie Bahnke, Kawerak CEO, went into detail on how the federal shutdown could have an effect on them.
“As far as our federal funding, so far we have not had any issues with being able to draw down funds that were obligated to us,” said Bahnke. “It does help that we are on a calendar fiscal year for our core federal funding; the federal fiscal year started on October 1, 2018, but Kawerak fiscal year just began on January 1, 2019. Apparently the leadership that formed Kawerak over 40 years ago thought it wise to have a three month delay in case of situations like this where we have a government shutdown.”
A lot of Kawerak employees are paid with federally funded grants. Reserves built up over time can be drawn upon to cover cash shortages.
“I know one are that’s impacted for sure is with our land management services,” said Bahnke. “We have Native allotment owners and the land they own is supposed to be appraised. We provide for the appraisal but the BIA has to approve of everything. So with the BIA not able to do that right now things are delayed.”
Bahnke detailed some of the areas where the lack of federal money will be a problem. “Information about why the seabirds are starving is on hold; we were hoping to learn more information about the cause so that we can inform our communities. Federal applications for IGAP and Pre-Disaster Mitigation grants are due this month; another grant program that assists with cleanup of hazardous material was due in December - with no federal staff available, this has left some of our communities struggling with questions they have about their applications, some of which Kawerak has been able to step in and offer help with, but there are some questions that only a federal project officer can answer.”
Training on federally funded Tribal Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency programs has been cancelled until further notice. “It’s important for us to keep abreast of any policy or funding changes that could impact our resources and roads projects, and our delivery of EPA funded services,” Bahnke said. “Staff are unable to contact federal agency colleagues that we normally collaborate with, for example, for education, employment and training as well as social science and natural science purposes.”
A Marine mammal ordinance workshop scheduled for next week on St. Lawrence Island will be put on hold. The closure of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the furloughing of employees who were to participate make it impossible. Hunters are still able to harvest marine mammals.
“One of our Kawerak board members is the representative for tribes in Alaska at the national Self Governance Advisory Committee, and our general counsel provides technical legal assistance to the group,” said Bahnke. “This provides tribes in Alaska an avenue to meet directly with national BIA leadership and the Office of Self Governance to advocate for Alaska issues that are very important to our region. Examples of issues the group brings forward are - Tribal self-governance of the US Dept. of Transportation, pushing to resume the process for tribes to put land into trust for Alaska, and supporting the new Indian Child Welfare Act regulations. The forum provides a platform for tribes to speak with one voice nationally to advance self-governance issues that affect our region. The quarterly January meeting has been postponed until further notice.”
According to the New York Times, the biggest and most far-reaching effect of the shutdown looms on Feb. 1 when food assistance programs run out of cash. The paper reports on January 7 that funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP will run out of money by the end of the month. The Agriculture Department has not said how long it will be able to fund the program. Other food assistance programs that affect many Nomeites and regional residents are facing a more immediate cash crunch. According to the Times, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, has already been cut off, with state funds filling the gap as the shutdown drags on.
WIC provides aid to seven million low-income Americans who are considered to be at “nutritional risk.”
On Tuesday afternoon the USDA issued a press release that stated that SNAP benefits for January were fully funded and that states have already received that money and have been distributing it to participants.
To protect SNAP recipients’ access for February, the press release said, USDA is working with states to issue February benefits earlier than usual. “USDA will rely on a provision of the just-expired Continuing Resolution (CR), which provides an appropriation for programs like SNAP and child nutrition to incur obligations for program operations within 30 days of the CR’s expiration. USDA will be reaching out to states to instruct them to request early issuance of SNAP benefits for February. States will have until January 20 to request and implement the early issuance. Once the early issuances are made, the February benefits will be made available to SNAP participants at that time.
USDA also said that the other major nutrition assistance programs have sufficient funding to continue operations into February.
“The child nutrition programs, including school meals and after-school programs have funding available to continue operations through March,” the press release states. “The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) has prior year funding which USDA will begin to provide states this week to facilitate February benefits.
“Other FNS programs, which provide critical assistance to our nation’s food banks, the elderly, and Tribal nations, may continue to utilize grant funding provided prior to the lapse in appropriations. Commodity deliveries to those programs will continue,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue promised.