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Federal shutdown hits NM workers, tribes

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico – home to tribal communities, national forests and an enormous federal presence – is looking increasingly vulnerable as the partial government shutdown continues into its third week.

It’s already creating uncertainty for tribal governments – where federal funding helps pay for child care, road maintenance and assistance to needy families.

But pinpointing the scope of the problem is made even more difficult because of the numerous federal voicemail boxes set up to warn people their calls won’t be returned.

Regis Pecos, a former Cochiti Pueblo governor and co-director of the Leadership Institute at Santa Fe Indian School, said he is hearing from colleagues worried about clearing snow from rural roads, in addition to potential disruptions to other services.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say the compounding effects become life-and-death situations for many of the most vulnerable people,” Pecos said in an interview. “That’s just the unfortunate reality.”

The partial government shutdown will hit the two-week mark today, as President Trump insists on funding for a wall along the Mexican border and Democrats refuse to include that in their funding proposals.

A new Democratic majority took office in the House on Thursday, and it remained unclear late in the day when the impasse might be resolved.

Although some government agencies, such as the military and New Mexico’s national laboratories, have been funded, many others have not. In those cases, federal employees either aren’t going into work or are doing so without knowing when their next paychecks will come.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said that by one estimate, roughly 5,800 federal employees in New Mexico have been furloughed or are working without pay. The state will pay a high price for Trump’s “irresponsible brinksmanship,” he said.

WalletHub, a personal-finance website, ranked New Mexico as the state most affected by the shutdown, citing New Mexico’s share of federal jobs, access to national parks and monuments and other factors.

The impact was obvious in a round of telephone calls to federal agencies Thursday.

“I’m not authorized to work at this time, but I will return your message when I get back to the office,” said one voicemail greeting by a local spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management.

Ripple effect

The shutdown is expected to ripple through the economy – from holding up scheduled construction projects to discouraging visits to national parks and monuments and the businesses around them.

Peter Brill, president of Sarcon, a construction company, said Thursday that he is preparing to build aircraft hangars at the Santa Fe airport but needs federal approval first.

Unfortunately, the team of federal employees who would review the permit aren’t in the office – because they’re deemed “nonessential,” he said.

“There are people who are not receiving paychecks because we can’t begin this project,” Brill said.

The status of federal parks varies – they’re either closed or only partly open. Bandelier National Monument, for example, is closed to visitors. At Carlsbad Caverns, the visitor center, the cavern itself and restrooms are closed, while trails aboveground are open.

Tribal problems

In tribal communities, the partial shutdown is more than just an inconvenience.

Antonio Ramirez, a senior public information officer in the Navajo Nation president and vice president’s office, said the Bureau of Indian Affairs stopped clearing roads, resumed again this week and is expected to stop again – potentially leaving people stranded as another storm approaches.

The Navajo Nation is trying to fill in the gaps, he said, but the nation covers an area larger than West Virginia.

“We’re going to work to continue providing these services where we can,” Ramirez said. “However, it’s important to keep in mind that the lives and the livelihood of Navajo people – that’s not something that should be taken lightly.”

They shouldn’t be treated, he said, as “some pawns in this partisan fight.”

Pojoaque Gov. Joseph Talachy said his pueblo is evaluating the effects of the shutdown.

“Obviously, it’s quite worrisome for us,” Talachy said. “We’re hoping some kind of resolution will come soon, but it’s looking a little rough.”

Pecos, the former governor of Cochiti, said the U.S. government should fulfill the responsibilities it committed to under treaties and other agreements.

“Tribal communities are affected in ways that most Americans have no idea,” he said of the shutdown. “It could not have happened at a worse time, given the season.”

New Mexico’s U.S. senators, both Democrats, put the blame squarely on Trump, a Republican.

“It’s time for the president to stop using government services and working families’ paychecks as bargaining chips, and end this shutdown now,” Udall said.

Sen. Martin Heinrich said federal “workers and their families in New Mexico and across the country should not be held hostage for President Trump’s campaign promise to build a wasteful border wall.”

Trump, meanwhile, told reporters Thursday that the wall is a matter of public safety, according to The Associated Press.

“You can call it a barrier; you can call it whatever you want,” Trump said. “But essentially, we need protection in our country. We’re going to make it good. The people of our country want it.”

Journal staff writers Edmundo Carrillo and Rick Nathanson contributed to this story.

 

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