Federal shutdown puts Vermont welfare programs at risk

Photo by Kit Norton/VTDigger
Maria Belliveau, right, an associate officer for the Joint Fiscal Office, meets Friday with lawmakers including Rep. David Yacovone, left, to discuss the implications of the federal government shutdown on Vermont.

By KIT NORTON
VTDIGGER

If the federal government shutdown continues into March, Vermont could be on the hook for millions of dollars to fund welfare programs in the state, according to a briefing from the Joint Fiscal Office to the House Appropriations Committee on Friday.

The briefing on the impact of the shutdown on Vermont outlined how in the short term, Vermont is not being hit financially and that the federal food assistance program — SNAP — and other welfare programs will be funded through February.

The shutdown, which on Saturday tied the record for the longest in modern history at 21 days, shows no sign of ending as President Donald Trump continues to demand $5.7 billion in funding for a border wall that Democrats won’t give him.

However, if the shutdown drags on into March, lawmakers are concerned that the state may not have enough funds to cover losses caused by the shutdown.

“It’s obvious we have some cash flow and some balances that we could use in the short term that would help get them on through February and March,” said committee chair Rep. Kitty Toll, D-Danville. “But if the shutdown goes beyond March, we’re concerned if we have enough cash flow to backfill the needs of Vermonters.”

Vermont has 686 federal workers who are going without pay during the shutdown, and over 1,500 who work for agencies that have not had funds appropriated to them. There are also 1,200 Vermonters who work for the Department of Veteran Affairs — which is fully funded through 2019.

Toll said there weren’t any surprises in the briefing, but the federal gridlock “creates a lot of angst in individuals and families.”

“It puts pressure on the finances of our own state as we have to use money to fill the gap until we are reimbursed by the federal government,” she said.

The committee was also concerned about the delays in enacting the new farm bill.

With implementation of the farm bill delayed because of the shutdown, insurance protection for dairy farmers will not be immediately rolled out and there will be no safety net programs for farmers beginning in February, according to the report compiled by the Joint Fiscal Office.

3SquaresVT, a federal U.S. Department of Agriculture program administered in Vermont by the Department for Children and Families, released a statement on Thursday saying that as a result of the shutdown, SNAP benefits for February would be distributed early because of concerns the funds might not be available later on.

“We urge everyone who needs to take action to do so immediately. We remind everyone that these benefits will be for the entire month of February, so they’ll need to budget accordingly,” DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz said in a statement.

Maria Belliveau, of the Joint Fiscal Office, said that the federal government has been working with states to provide funding through the end of February for food assistance programs, but that it is unclear what will happen beyond next month.

Committee vice chair Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, said economically struggling Vermonters are the ones who are most impacted by the shutdown.

“People who are struggling, and that’s a large part of the people who received these sort of services, are just going to be put into more stress,” Hooper said.

Committee member Rep. David Yacovone, D-Morristown, said if the shutdown continues past March and then into spring, it could bring a disastrous effect onto Vermont’s medical system, impacting thousands of Vermonters.

“If it goes on much longer, if it gets more prolonged, all of a sudden the Medicaid cash to pay nursing homes, home health, hospitals, and physicians becomes in question,” Yacovone said. “We’re not at that stage yet, though, that would be a nightmare.”

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