Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Roundup: how the partial shutdown of the federal government affects, or could affect, rural Americans

As the partial shutdown of the federal government stretches to Day 18, here's another update of how it's affecting, or could affect, rural Americans:

Parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway will be closed indefinitely since some stretches are blocked by debris from a November ice storm. The scenic parkway, which is maintained by the National Park Service, can't be cleared until there's paid staff to do it. Hiking is open to the public, but the Park Service "left a notice at the Rockfish Gap entrance that said the area is open to the public, but no personnel will be available to provide guidance, assistance, maintenance, or emergency response. The federal agency urges extreme caution for anyone who does go in," Brianna Hamblin reports for WDBJ-TV in Roanoke.

In what NPR calls "an irony", "the government shutdown began with the president's demand for border security money. But it has also halted E-Verify, a federal program that's supposed to prevent immigrants from working here illegally," Joel Rose reports. In addition, "much of the nation's immigration court system is closed, adding to a backlog of more than 800,000 cases and counting."

Federal prison employees are working without pay. After one such prison in rural Marianna, Fla., was damaged in Hurricane Michael in October, prisoners were transferred to a facility in Yazoo City, Miss., more than 400 miles away. Marianna corrections officers have been obliged since then to make the seven-hour drive for two-week stints. Since the shutdown, the guards are not only working without pay, but without reimbursement for gas, meals or laundry, expenses which can add up to hundreds of dollars per trip, Patricia Mazzei reports for The New York Times.

That's a financial burden few of the guards can afford, since more than two-thirds of the prison staff members sustained hurricane damage to their homes and about 10 percent of them completely lost their homes. And if those expenses cause staff to go into debt, that could endanger their employment: "The Bureau of Prisons as a general condition of employment requires that its workers pay their debts in a timely fashion. Failure to do so can result in discipline," Mazzei reports.

The shutdown "may hurt farmers by delaying the administration's ability to steer through the approval for year-round sales of a 15 percent ethanol blend for gasoline before the summer begins. That's up from 10 percent allowed now," Mario Parker and Jennifer Dlouhy report for the Chicago Tribune. President Trump had promised in October to allow year-round E15 sales, which would expand the market for corn-based ethanol and help corn farmers hurt by the trade war with China.

Reversing past legal precedent, the White House directed the Internal Revenue Service to pay tax refunds to Americans during the shutdown, and is trying to find a way to prevent federal food assistance programs from running out of money next month. Those include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Women with Infants and Children program, and school lunch programs, Damian Paletta, Jeff Stein and Juliet Eilperin report for The Washington Post. Though the Trump administration has been trying to minimize the impact of the shutdown on voters, 800,000 federal workers will miss their first paycheck within the next few days.

The shutdown is jeopardizing parts of Trump's agenda generally backed by the agriculture industry, Eric Wolff and Brianna Ehley report for Politico. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers will delay publishing the proposed replacement for the Waters of the U.S. rule in the Federal Register until EPA funding is restored. That means the 60-day public comment period on the proposed WOTUS rule won't begin until it's published, and a hearing on the proposal scheduled for Jan. 23 has been postponed indefinitely. Similarly, an EPA proposal to ease limits on mercury and other toxic chemicals from power plants hasn't been published in the Federal Register and can't be until the agency gets more funds.

Also, "The shutdown has also complicated the Agriculture Department’s efforts to assist farmers and ranchers burned by Trump’s retaliatory tariffs. Agricultural producers who haven’t yet certified their 2018 production must wait until local Farm Service Agency offices reopen before moving ahead with their applications for trade aid," Wolff and Ehley report.

Efforts to fight the nation's opioid epidemic have also been slowed or even stalled because of employee furloughs at the Office of National Drug Control Policy. "If the government remains shuttered until the end of the month, funding for critical grant programs involving law enforcement and prevention activities could also be in jeopardy, some people involved in the effort worry. The drug policy office is expected to announce awards of money at the end of January for prevention programs and efforts to help law enforcement catch traffickers," Wolff and Ehley report.

The shutdown is affecting the fallout of the trade war too: the Commerce Department has stopped processing companies' requests to be excluded from U.S. aluminum and steel tariffs, and has no staff for ongoing investigations into whether trade penalties should be imposed on foreign companies selling their products in the U.S. at unfairly low or subsidized prices, Wolff and Ehley report.

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