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Federal Shutdown

Although there have been several major issues related to the Federal Shutdown, most Big Spring residents won't see a huge effect in the short-term from the furloughs.

"Nonessential" military contractors, and other government employees, are on involuntary furlough. Most of those employees are still waiting at home for a resolution from Congress. While many federal benefits as well as postal service will continue, national parks, federal courts and the U.S. Marshals Service are among the agencies that are either operating without pay or have shut down altogether.

The shutdown has also affected the Affordable Care Act’s implementation. Texas, and other states, do not have reliable online markets available at this time. Issues cropped up on the first day it went online, and with the shutdown they are not able to be immediately addressed. Many people attempting to access the online marketplaces encounter errors that make the online resource unusable. The government is recommending that people interested in the healthcare markets sign up via phone, or paper applications. Once the shutdown is ended, full services are expected to resume quickly.

The VA Hospital has issued a press release stating that they will be able to continue offering full services for now. However, claims processers will no longer be eligible for overtime, and interments through the National Cemetery Administration will be on a reduced schedule. The VA operates off of a government appropriation that is funded two years in advance, regular services should be safe through to 2014.

The shutdown is affecting Veteran’s Affairs federal offices, though. Although the VA hospital in Big Spring is still fully-staffed with medical personnel and has funding to last through next year, the federal offices of the VA have been furloughed. Tuesday, approximately 15 thousand of the VA’s nationwide employees, about 5% of the organization overall, were furloughed. In addition, payments to veterans are dangerously close to grinding to a halt. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki says that compensation payments to almost four-million veterans won’t go out next month, if the shutdown continues. This includes thousands of veterans with the most severe disabilities. Also, pension payments for almost 315,000 low-income veterans will stop. He is testifying before the House Veteran’s Affairs Committee to explain the effects on VA. Veterans and family members who need information can see the VA’s Appropriation’s Lapse Plan, and a Field Guide for dealing with the shutdown at the Veteran’s Affairs website,

The Federal Correctional Institute in Big Spring remains open through the government shutdown. Although officials at the prison refused to comment to KBST news, the Department of Justice's Contingency plan lays out information for how prisons operate during a lapse in appropriations. Since employees are responsible for the care and imprisonment of inmates, the government considers their jobs “excepted” from the national furlough. This means that they continue to work, as normal, and are guaranteed to be paid for this period once the shutdown has ended. However, if the shutdown lasts too long, their regular checks could be delayed. As it stands, the facility should be fully-staffed and is expected to weather the shutdown without incident.

Women, Infants, and Children are being affected, as the federally-funded WIC program struggles nationwide to continue operating. Although WIC is implemented statewide, and is not currently on furlough, the program’s budgets are funded through congressional appropriations. Several states are already having to cut back on WIC services, and if the shutdown continues for too long, Texas might become one of them. Thanks to reserves built into Texas’ program, WIC services within the state are still fully operational. However, millions of women have stopped going to their local offices due to the shutdown. For the moment, women in Howard County shouldn’t have any problems receiving normal WIC support. WIC is not expected to have any issues in the immediate future within Texas, the state’s reserves for the program are deep enough to handle operations for weeks, even if the Federal shutdown continues.

One government institution not feeling the effects is, of course, our Postal Service. Neither snow, nor rain, heat, nor government shutdown seems to stay those couriers from their appointed rounds. Although overseen by the Federal Government, the United States Post Office is considered to be a distinct business. Therefore, the shutdown has had almost no effect on the USPS. No employees have been furloughed, and mail service has continued unabated. They’ve continued taking in revenue and paying out wages without so much as a hiccup. No matter how long the shutdown lasts, the postal service is expected to be completely unaffected by the government freeze.

For now, schools in Howard County aren’t feeling major effects. Most federal services provided to schools are funded a year in advance, meaning that schools are not hurting yet from the shutdown. However, one program that got the axe when the furlough began was the Head Start program. Designed to assist young children in low-income families, Head Start closed down with several other federal programs when the shutdown began. However, two Texas Philanthropists donated ten million dollars earlier this week to reopen the program. Laura and John Arnold made a personal donation to keep the program funded, allowing for Head Start to continue through the shutdown.

Although Military servicemen and women still work throughout the partial shutdown, an outcry went out when it was revealed that family death benefits were part of the furloughed measures. Whenever a service member is killed in the line of action, the family usually receives $100,000, to help with the cost of funeral and grave services, and to help carry the family through the difficult period. Congress was able to pass a quick measure to reinstate those benefits, meaning that Howard County military families can take solace in the fact that even if the unimaginable happens, they will have that small measure of support available to them.

One federal agency hit hard by the shutdown is the Environmental Protection Agency. Less than 5% of the employees of the EPA are “Excepted” from the national furlough, and as a result almost every function of the EPA has shut down. Not only does this affect the possibility of response to a major environmental disaster, it also bodes ill for major projects, nationwide. Large construction projects, much like Big Spring’s intended new landfill, or Midland International Airport’s Spaceport Designation, are required to prepare an Environmental Assessment, or an Environmental Impact Statement to submit to the EPA before construction can be approved. While the shutdown continues, EAs and EISes nationwide are on hold, unable to be processed with the EPA’s limited amounts of manpower. And, even when the shutdown ends, the backlog from the weeks of dormancy could mean even more delays for large construction projects. Currently, very little in Howard County is expected to be directly affected by the furlough of the EPA. But, as the shutdown continues, this very well could change.

One industry which was ht surprisingly hard was Real Estate. We got in touch with Sherri Key, of United Country Heart of the City Realtors, to talk about some of the effects the shutdown has had on Real Estate. She explained that due to furloughs striking the USDA, SBA, and most importantly the IRS, loan approvals have all but shut down in Big Spring. The housing market in Howard County has slowed considerably, and every day the shutdown continues just makes it worse.

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