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Utah awaits possible federal shutdown

Published: Wednesday, July 1 2015 10:03 a.m. MDT

Like many Utahns, Gov. Gary Herbert was watching and waiting Friday to see whether the federal government will be forced to shutdown Tuesday because Congress has failed to pass a needed budget bill. (Shutterstock) Like many Utahns, Gov. Gary Herbert was watching and waiting Friday to see whether the federal government will be forced to shutdown Tuesday because Congress has failed to pass a needed budget bill. (Shutterstock)

SALT LAKE CITY — Like many Utahns, Gov. Gary Herbert was watching and waiting Friday to see whether the federal government will be forced to shutdown Tuesday because Congress has failed to pass a needed budget bill.

"Utah is concerned, but we are prepared," said Ally Isom, Herbert's deputy chief of staff. "We're doing daily analysis on where we are right now. But it's really hard to know. … We do know, in the short term, we're going to be OK."

Isom said the message from the governor to members of Utah's congressional delegation is to resolve the current budget impasse between the House and the Senate as soon as possible.

"There are a number of Utah families who could be severely impacted by this," she said. "We'd really like to see the federal government focused on the issues of the day that are pressing, and it would be great if we could move beyond the political battles."

Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said what's seen as dysfunction in Congress is taking a toll.

"Of course, we aren't solving problems that need to be solved, like immigration. We're leaving that undone," Jowers said. "The cynicism of our citizens has reached epic proportions."

Herbert's fellow Republican, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, has been at the forefront of what many in the party see as a futile effort to use the budget bill to halt funding for President Barack Obama's new health care law.

Former GOP Sen. Bob Bennett, who lost his seat to Lee in 2010, said the effort appeared to be aimed more at raising money for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who with help from Lee held the Senate floor on the issue for more than 21 hours earlier this week.

"He got a lot of publicity, but he didn't make any difference whatsoever," Bennett said.

On Friday, the Senate sent the budget bill back to the House with funding restored for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. It's not clear if the House and Senate will reach an agreement on the bill before Tuesday.

A short-term shutdown could slow the economy temporarily, Bennett said, but if it lasts longer than a week or two, "it could have a fairly serious impact on Utah's economy. You reach a point where you cannot make up for the lost activity."

Isom said state agencies are updating the contingency plans they prepared about two years ago, the last time a federal government shutdown was threatened. Federal agencies have similar plans in place to deal with a shutdown.

Isom said the biggest concern for Utah is whether the money needed to reimburse the state for federally funded assistance programs, including food stamps, continues to arrive from Washington, D.C.

"It could affect a lot of needy Utahns," she said, if a shutdown were to continue long-term.

Also impacted would be many of the Utahns who work for the federal government, including civilian employees at Hill Air Force Base, one of the state's largest employers, and at the state's five national parks.

"It will greatly affect visitors to and the staff at Zion National Park," park spokeswoman Alyssa Baltus said. "If the government does shut down, the park will be closed to visitors and most of the park employees will be furloughed."

The National Park Service will close all of the country's 401 national parks if the government shuts down, and guests staying in park hotels or campgrounds will be required to leave within 48 hours.

Isom said that will hit the Utah towns that surround national parks especially hard.

"Our bigger concern there is just the threat to the local economies," she said. "We have very small communities for whom the national parks are their bread and butter, so we are very worried about the economic impact."

Contributing: Rich Piatt

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