Opinion

|

Reporter's Notebook

Shutdown Impacts

Montana has a high ratio of federal employees affected by the shutdown compared to other states

According to a report by The Washington Post, Montana has the third-highest per-capita number of federal employees affected by the partial government shutdown, trailing only Alaska and Maryland, which borders Washington D.C.

The Post says 1,500 of every 100,000 workers in Montana are employed by agencies impacted by the shutdown, which is in its fourth week, making it the longest in U.S. history. That means Montana has a disproportionate percentage of its workforce sitting on the sidelines waiting for a resolution to come out of D.C.

Montana in general has one of the nation’s highest government employee ratios, due in great part to the state’s expansive reserves of federal land, because the two departments that manage all that land — the U.S. Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service — are among the nine of 15 federal departments left unfunded because of the shutdown.

Nationwide roughly 800,000 federal employees have been affected, with 380,000 furloughed and 420,000 deemed essential, which means they are working without pay.

The harsh reality is that there’s not much Montana can do about it, although Senate President Scott Sales, a Republican from Bozeman, has proposed spending $8 million of state funds on a U.S.-Mexico border wall, which is the sticking point in negotiations between the Trump administration and Democrats.

You can decide whether that’s fiscally prudent, but it’s a moot point in any case. For one, $8 million would constitute an imperceptible percentage of President Donald Trump’s goal of $5.7 billion. Secondly, the bill doesn’t have a chance of getting past Gov. Steve Bullock’s veto pen, if it even gets there.

U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester, as well as Rep. Greg Gianforte, have alternately demanded votes to end the shutdown, sponsored legislation to address the issue or made other public declarations, but those efforts are either largely symbolic or limited in their capacity to immediately resolve the shutdown.

Meanwhile, the National Park Service announced plans to dip into park entrance fees to maintain operations, a move praised by Daines but rife with its own potential long-term repercussions.

Until the shutdown ends, the numerous impacted federal employees across the state are left with a murky future and difficult decisions for their families, while Montanans at large must contend with diminished services on the public lands that are cornerstones of the state’s economy and overall lifestyle.

In part because Glacier National Park isn’t as busy in the winter, the consequences aren’t as eye-opening as those seen in places like California’s Joshua Tree National Park, which made national headlines after visitors  cut down trees to make illegal roads and campsites.

Still, while Glacier remains open to the public, fewer than a dozen employees are reporting for duty, without pay, and the park has been forced to cancel events and hope visitors treat its winter wonderland with respect in the absence of fully staffed oversight. There have been reports at national parks elsewhere in the country of overflowing garbage and human waste strewn around campgrounds.

The longer the shutdown drags on, the more uncertain it becomes that furloughed employees will still be around. It’s also unclear how it will impact seasonal hiring. All of this raises the specter of the shutdown’s impacts lingering far after it ends, which should concern everybody who cares about Glacier Park and public lands in Montana.