Special session • Legislature will try to minimize damage but food stamps, other programs may be cut.
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Utah will have to suspend programs providing food stamps and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition supplements, and halt workplace-safety inspections and vocational rehabilitation if the federal shutdown drags into November.
The Legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee heard the news Tuesday as lawmakers prepared for a special session Wednesday on dealing with continuing effects of the shutdown.
The committee sent the Legislature three bills to debate. They would:
• Spend up to $7 million more in state money to keep national parks open through Dec. 1.
• Tap state funding for school lunch programs if federal money evaporates.
• Pay insurance and benefits for state employees furloughed because federal funds for programs they oversee have disappeared.
"The food stamp program is scheduled to run out at the end of the month" if the shutdown continues, Juliette Tennert, chief economist for the Governor's Office of Management and Budget, told the committee.
That means 100,000 low-income households in Utah would lose benefits, added Geoffrey Landward, deputy director of the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
The WIC program, which serves 66,000 Utahns with food and nutrition education, would run out of money again Nov. 1, said Shari Watkins, Utah Department of Health finance director. WIC closed temporarily when the shutdown started, but a federal grant helped reopen it through October.
Even if the program closes then, Watkins said WIC would use reserve funds through the end of November to provide special prescription formula needed by some babies.
But most recipients would have to turn to food banks, churches and charities for food aid.
"To put 66,000 individuals [now on WIC] out there to churches and food banks is a huge blow," lamented Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay.
Utah Labor Commissioner Sherrie Hayashi said her department will cease workplace-safety inspections about Nov. 4. "That sickens me beyond belief," said Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City.
Other programs will be affected soon.
One determines whether people qualify for Supplemental Security Income and related disability payments.
It is targeted to shut down about Oct. 25. A vocational-rehabilitation program serving 20,000 people would close Nov. 8, officials said.
Lawmakers also worry about federally funded children's nutrition programs that offer lunches at schools, day-care centers and preschools.
While federal officials say funding is secure, State Schools Superintendent Martell Menlove hedged "we haven't seen the money yet."
So the committee backed HB2002 to use state funds to keep that program going "just in case," said House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden.
The committee also endorsed HB2001 to continue to pay for insurance and holiday-leave benefits for furloughed state employees.
The state estimates about 625 could be furloughed by month's end, including 181 of the Utah National Guard's 250 full-time employees, said Adjutant General Dallen Atack.
The committee also endorsed SB2001, which would retroactively OK the state's payment of $1.66 million to reopen Utah's national parks and would spend up to $7 million more to keep them open through Dec. 1.
Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said the $1.66 million expenditure has generated $12.7 million to $33.3 million in state gross domestic product through tourism.
"The tax revenue [alone] for the state is anywhere between $600,000 and $1.5 million," he said.
"We're trying to maintain our economy," Adams added. "We need to send a message to those who want to come to the state that we are open for business."
After Oct. 28, he said, the state will send only weekly payments to the federal government for the parks rather than the whole amount up front and allow legislative leaders to halt payments when conditions warrant.
While Utah officials hope to be reimbursed by the feds for opening the parks, no guarantee exists. "If Congress appropriates the funding, then we will be repaid.
But that's a big if," said legislative fiscal analyst Jonathan Ball.
Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, wondered what state programs would be hurt by spending state money for national parks. None, she was told, because the money comes from a Sovereign Lands Management Account, which has a $24 million surplus.
Funded by commercial operations on the Great Salt Lake, such as mineral extraction or brine shrimp harvests, the account helps fund state management of public lands.
Officials figure $8.7 million could be taken from that fund for national parks an amount that would take five years to replace without federal reimbursement.