Bracing for a shutdown

Marylanders keep wary eye on federal budget talks

April 06, 2011|By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

The last time a budget crisis forced the federal government to close its doors, Social Security Administration paralegal Elaine Mitchell relied on a credit card for some expenses, made partial payments on monthly bills and burned through savings to keep her family afloat while she was out of work.

With the prospect of another government shutdown looming this week, the 59-year-old Clinton woman isn't sure she'll be able to count on the same backstops this time. For starters, she said, the interest rate on her credit card is higher than it was during the shutdown in 1995. And these days, she said, she mostly lives from paycheck to paycheck.

"I have a little bit saved up, but how long will savings last?" said Mitchell, a union steward for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 14,615 federal workers who live in Maryland. "People are anxious."

As Congress and the White House near Friday's deadline to reach a compromise on a spending plan or face a widespread shutdown, thousands of Maryland-based federal employees, businesses, and scientists are in a state of limbo, unsure whether the federal grant, work order or paycheck they rely on will materialize next week.

A shutdown would also have a far-reaching impact on state residents with no direct ties to the government. Income tax refunds for people who file federal returns on paper, for instance, could be delayed. The Federal Housing Administration, which guarantees 30 percent of the home loans in the United States, would suspend operations. Sixteen national parks in the state, including Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore and the Assateague Island National Seashore on the Eastern Shore, would be closed.

Other services would continue. Social Security recipients would still get their checks, White House officials said Wednesday. The U.S. Postal Service would continue to deliver mail. Doctors would be able to see patients insured by Medicare. The Environmental Protection Agency would continue to watch for radiation from Japan's nuclear disaster.

And no matter what happens, federal income taxes will still be due April 18.

Members of Maryland's congressional delegation said their offices have been flooded in recent days with questions from residents about how a shutdown would work. In many cases, there are no clear answers.

"They're expressing anxiety," Rep. John Sarbanes said this week. People are asking whether "the things they rely on — many of which they rely on on a regular basis, whether those will be there for them if the government shuts down," the Baltimore County Democrat said.

Federal agencies have been operating for more than six months on a series of short-term spending measures, approved each time by Congress just before the government ran out of money. House Speaker John Boehner said he planned to hold a vote Thursday on a one-week extension.

President Barack Obama summoned congressional leaders to the White House Wednesday night for a second meeting in as many days.

Earlier Wednesday, federal agencies began publicizing shutdown plans.

In all, some 800,000 federal employees would be furloughed if the government closed, the Obama administration estimates. Employees needed to protect "life and property," including members of the military, would continue to work, but they would not be paid until after the shutdown ends, officials said. Congress would have to decide afterward whether to provide retroactive pay for employees, such as Mitchell, who work in other federal agencies.

Maryland officials say the state, which is home to about 130,000, federal employees, would be hit harder by a long-term shutdown than most other states. State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said Wednesday that the effect would be "really gruesome."

"When the government shuts down, it adversely affects Maryland constituents, in a much more detrimental fashion than any other state in the union," said Miller, a Democrat. "We just hope and pray they can resolve this matter as quickly as possible."

Employees at the Social Security Administration complex on Greene Street in West Baltimore held a rally Wednesday to oppose the possible shutdown. Saying they feel like pawns in a broader ideological debate taking place in Washington over the role of the federal government, the employees — including many who stopped working during the shutdown of 1995 and 1996 — chanted "Furlough Congress" and "Don't shut us down."

"I'm blaming Congress," said Darlene Monteagudo, a 51-year-old Baltimore woman who has worked for the agency for 23 years. "They're the ones not doing their job."

Monteagudo said she stashed away her federal income tax refund this year when she heard that a government shutdown was a possibility. By doing so, she said, she bought herself at least a couple of months of solvency if she is furloughed.

Many of her colleagues said they aren't so lucky.

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