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Utahns frustrated by federal government shutdown

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 1 2013 1:28 p.m. MDT

The state Capitol on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, in Salt Lake City.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Tuesday's shutdown of the federal government won't be the first that Randy Austin has weathered in his 40 years as the owner of a tourist-oriented business just outside Capitol Reef National Park.

"It was very irritating then and it's irritating now," Austin, owner of Austin's Chuckwagon general store and lodge in Torrey, said Monday, hours before Congress failed to reach agreement on a budget bill needed to keep the government operating.

The result of an impasse over attempts to stall President Barack Obama's signature health care law, the indeterminate shutdown will have a significant impact in Utah, including closing the state's five national parks.

Gov. Gary Herbert's office estimates as many as 40,000 federal employees, primarily civilians at Hill Air Force Base and workers at the Ogden Internal Revenue Service center, face unpaid furloughs, along with about 192 of the 256 Utah National Guard employees.

Also expected to be furloughed are 270 local health department employees and 16 employees who administer the federal Women, Infant and Children nutritional program serving some 65,000 Utahns. That program is expected to be suspended in a week.

Kristen Cox, executive director of the Governor's Office of Management and Budget, said after spending the day reviewing the impact of a shutdown and briefing the governor, there is concern about the economic repercussions of a shutdown.

"But overall, when you look at the magnitude of the programs that the state administers, both on behalf of the state and the federal government, there's just very few programs initially — initially is the key word — that will be impacted," Cox said.

While there's no estimate yet of the shutdown's financial drain on the state's economy, the costs will climb quickly if funding for federal government operations is not restored soon.

Just keeping the national parks closed through October could mean a $1 billion hit to the state's economy, said Juliette Tennent, deputy director and chief economist of the management and budget office.

Austin recalled having to struggle when the park closed in the 1970s and his late wife was furloughed from her National Park Service job for weeks during a similar budget dispute in Congress.

"At the time business was real slow and we had three little kids, and she wasn't getting her check," he recalled. This time around, Austin said, the shuttering of the park that attracts visitors from around the world may hit even harder.

"This is our peak season right now with the leaves turning," he said, what should have been an opportunity to make up for business lost during an unusually wet summer. "This is just icing on the cake."

Austin, who is relying on the nation's new Affordable Care Act to provide him with insurance after losing a leg after an accident earlier this year, said Congress is "acting like a bunch of little kids. … If it was up to me, I would put them in 'timeout.'"

Torrey Mayor Adus Dorsey said the tiny central Utah town is already feeling the effects of the partisan battle raging in Washington, D.C., because the local economy is so dependent on tourism

"Anything that happens down in the park affects us. Certainly, we've had some cancellations, people who are unsure about what's going to happen so they're just making other plans," Dorsey said. "It impacts the whole community."

The same is true in Springdale, the southern Utah town just outside Zion National Park.

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