SALT LAKE CITY — Constituents are calling Rep. Jim Matheson nonstop with concerns about the impact of a federal shutdown, especially those who make their living from the state's No. 1 industry — tourism.
"My office in eastern Utah has gotten more calls about this than health care," Matheson, D-Utah, said. "It's just stunning how many small businesses are calling in," worried about their customer base drying up if the national parks close.
Other callers are fearful they won't get their Social Security checks or other benefits if the federal government comes to a halt. Matheson said his staff is able to answer some, but not all, of the questions.
"For some we offer information," the state's lone Democrat in Congress said. "For others, we just try to lend a sympathetic ear and say we share your frustration."
Former Sen. Bob Bennett said the public's reaction is not so different than it was the last time the federal government shut down, in 1995.
"The attitude was, and I think it is predominantly now, just work it out," Bennett said. "Why can't you get along? Why can't you people cooperate?"
Bennett said tea party followers in Congress are the most likely to be blamed by voters for the shutdown "because they have back here an attitude of no compromise."
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who won Bennett's seat last year with tea party backing, said it's a Democrat, President Barack Obama, who bears the most responsibility for the crisis.
"Contact the White House," is the advice Lee said he would give Utahns unhappy with the situation. "I really do think it is very fair and accurate to cast the lion's share of the blame on the president, who short-circuited this process."
Gov. Gary Herbert issued a statement late Thursday saying he had directed state agencies to prepare contingency plans for federal funding running out as soon as Saturday.
Herbert said he's grateful Utah balances its budget and said "that kind of stability matters to everyday Utahns."
The governor's budget director, Ron Bigelow, said state employees who depend on federal funds for all or part of their salaries and federal programs administered by the state, like Medicaid, will be directly impacted.
But, Bigelow warned, the longer the state goes without federal funds, the more Utahns will be affected. A monthlong shutdown, he said, would hit the economy hard.
"If they shut it down for a week, yes, there will be some inconveniences and some impacts on certain individuals," Bigelow said. "But the longer this goes, the more it grows."
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