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Mainers Feeling Sharper Pinch from Shutdown
10/04/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

When the federal government shut down on Tuesday, people were left wondering what that would mean. For some, the answers came swiftly, as employees at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and other government installations found themselves indefinitely furloughed. National parks were closed. Members of the Maine National Guard and workers in the Veterans' Affairs Departments are also being affected by the lack of funds. But even if you don't collect a check from the federal government, you still may feel the impact. Jennifer Mitchell reports.

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One thing that's become clear about a government shutdown, is that it's also a shutdown of information. With federal call centers from Hawaii to Bar Harbor sitting vacant, and several major government program Web sites actually taken down, it's not easy to discover exactly how to get what you need.

"It's hard to tell - it really is. It's kind of an unknown right now. We're going to find out when we find out," says Amanda Woolford, who runs the Southern Maine Re-Entry Center in Alfred, a half-way house for women just leaving the state's prison system.

Women re-entering society, Woolford says, need stability. And she needs to know that when a newly-released inmate calls about jobs, training, health, food, heat, or welfare benefits, that someone will pick up the phone, someone will have answers, and that the benefits will be there for the long term. And right now, that's not clear.

"When we go to set up release plans and things like that, they're going to say, 'Thanks for calling.' But there's nothing we can do," Woolford says. "Which is unfortunate, because they're used to hearing that, and they're used to having doors shut in their face. And I think it's going to happen again."

For now, the state has said that benefits like food stamps and child nutrition programs, like WIC, are safe, but only in the short term. If a budget bill isn't passed, funding for those programs could dry up. Even the federal courts could feel the pinch by mid month.

Social Security offices are running at limited capacity. In the Bangor office, an official said he'd been instructed not to speak to the media, but the Social Security Web site warns that local centers will offer "limited services," including maintenance of benefits. But it will not allow people to apply for Social Security cards.

While essential services are ongoing - for example, meterologists are still at work at the National Weather Service in Maine, albeit without pay until the shutdown ends. Other areas of government, such as environmental oversight, are almost completely dead in the water, to the dismay of Maine's conservation groups.

"EPA has been almost completely paralyzed," says Taryn Hallweaver, from Environment Maine. Hallweaver describes the EPA as environmental "cops on the beat."

"So this government shutdown, and how it's affecting EPA, is as if the police station were to send home almost all of its officers and say, 'We're only going to deal with arson.' And this is really a time when polluters can run amok."

Another area that's just beginning to feel the effects of the shutdown is research. Any members of the University of Maine faculty who were involved in National Science Foundation projects will find those projects at a complete halt, says Jake Ward, vice president for innovation and economic development at the University of Maine.

Other projects are in jeopardy too. Plans to build a wind-wave tank - part of the university's offshore wind research efforts - are on hold, pending a federal program review. "If that is delayed much longer," Ward says, "then we may not be able to start the construction of the facility before the winter building season."

In all, some 800,000 federal employees across the country are on furlough. Those deemed "essential" will get paid when it's over - the others may or may not. That's up to Congress. In the meantime, when you call for information on a federal program?

Answering machine sound: "We look forward to returning your message once funding has been restored."


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