SALT LAKE CITY — The 2-week-old federal government shutdown isn't expected to significantly impact the state budget until the end of the month, but an alternative funding plan may have to be put in place soon.
"We have other money. We have other resources we can use. But we want to be cautious about that because we can't float this forever," said Kristen Cox, executive director of the Governor's Office of Management and Budget.
She said discussions with state lawmakers over how to cover the shortfall in federal support could start as soon as next week if Congress and President Donald Trump don't resolve the impasse over funding the president's border wall.
The Utah Legislature's annual 45-day session starts Jan. 28.
The state has already spent about $55,000 to help keep Bryce, Zion and Arches national parks open through the end of last year, and still has $25,000 available, funds that are expected to last at least through midmonth.
Other areas of the state budget that depend on federal dollars are being monitored, Cox said, particularly those aimed at providing food assistance, including school lunches, for low-income Utahns.
She said the Women, Infants and Children program has enough money to last four to six weeks while the school lunch program administered by the Utah State Board of Education could be out of federal dollars by the end of the month.
"Utah, and other states, are considering options should federal funding cease in February," Kathleen Britton, the state board's director of child nutrition programs, said in a statement.
"By that time, the Utah Legislature will also be in session and the State Board of Education will be working with its governing partners on a solution if the need arises," she said.
Federal grants anticipated by the Utah National Guard and other entities are being delayed, Cox said, but are "not make or break" for the budget. She said state agencies updated her office Monday on the shutdown impact.
"We know we're OK for a while, so there's no need to panic," she said.
In the meantime, "the hope is that the delegation and Congress can do their job, and the president, respect each other's position but do what's best for the country and get this resolved," Cox said.
It's the third federal shutdown Cox has had to deal with since being appointed to head the office by Gov. Gary Herbert in 2012. That's a "sad statement," she said. "This is not something you want to be familiar with."
The governor is concerned about everyone affected by the shutdown including furloughed federal employees, his deputy chief of staff, Paul Edwards, said in a statement. "Washington, D.C.’s, dysfunction frustrates us to no end."
He said planning and discipline by "Utah's hardworking public servants has minimized the impacts of the ongoing gridlock. Cooperation from federal and nonprofit partners allows the state of Utah to manage just fine in the near term."
But the risks are growing, "especially for programs designed to support low-income women and children," Edwards said, calling on negotiators to "recognize the importance of finding solutions instead of broadcasting their differences."
The state is getting help from other entities to deal with the shutdown.
In addition to the Utah Office of Tourism, St. George, Washington County and the nonprofit Zion Forever Project are contributing toward maintaining basic visitor services at Zion for a week, including cleaning restrooms and picking up trash.
The price tag for each of the four entities is about $1,000 a day.
"We've got a four-way partnership going forward," said Vicki Varela, managing director of the tourism office. She called the arrangement "a silver lining to all of the chaos in D.C."
St. George Mayor Jon Pike called being part of at least a short-term solution an easy decision.
"While Zion National Park is our area's biggest economic driver, the park means so much more to us than just dollars and cents," he said in a statement. "Its splendor is part of our identity."
Zion Forever Project Executive Director Lyman Hafen said the partnership will "buy more time for the welfare of Zion National Park and to assure a better experience for the thousands of visitors who continue to come to Zion every day."
The nonprofit had kept the park open since the beginning of the year, just as the Bryce Canyon Natural History Association is doing through Thursday. Varela said the state will figure out a way to help Bryce soon.
Arches, however, is no longer getting state help to stay open because visitation drops off after the holidays due to winter conditions. The only national park visitor centers currently open in Utah are in Zion and Bryce.
Sarah Saavedra of Visalia, California, said she and her family were thankful with the conditions they found at Zion Thursday after visiting national parks near their hometown during the shutdown.
California's Yosemite and Sequoia national parks were "very dirty. People are just throwing their trash everywhere, not utilizing the trash cans. Feces are overflowing in the port-a-potties and it's just disgusting," she said.
While Saavedra said there were parking and other issues at Zion, her family's experience there was totally different.
"I think they've done an amazing job," she said of the skeleton staff at the park. "And if it wasn't for them, we wouldn't be here."
Kevin Lewis, director of the St. George Tourism Office, acknowledged that at Zion, "it's not business as usual, but it's open and available and that's the most important thing."
Lewis said federal officials have a responsiblity not just to the tourists coming to the park, but also locals hurt by the shutdown.
"Tourism is huge business for the area," he said. "I think we're taking it one week at a time."6 comments on this story
The Salt Lake City Public Utilities Watershed Program is stepping up maintenance of public restrooms in canyons along the central Wasatch Front that are a major source of drinking water, usually done by federal forest rangers.
"Salt Lake City takes our responsibility to maintain the valley's precious watershed areas seriously," Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said. "We will not allow gridlock in Washington to damage these pristine areas which our part of our identity as Utahns."
Contributing: Ladd Egan and Marjorie Cortez