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Utahns frustrated by federal government shutdown

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The leadership of both parties allowed political games to stand in the way of keeping our government open for business. – Rep. Jim Matheson

SALT LAKE CITY — Tuesday's shutdown of the federal government won't be the first that Randy Austin has weathered in his 40 years as the owner of a tourist-oriented business just outside Capitol Reef National Park.

"It was very irritating then and it's irritating now," Austin, owner of Austin's Chuckwagon general store and lodge in Torrey, said Monday, hours before Congress failed to reach agreement on a budget bill needed to keep the government operating.

The result of an impasse over attempts to stall President Barack Obama's signature health care law, the indeterminate shutdown will have a significant impact in Utah, including closing the state's five national parks.

Gov. Gary Herbert's office estimates as many as 40,000 federal employees, primarily civilians at Hill Air Force Base and workers at the Ogden Internal Revenue Service center, face unpaid furloughs, along with about 192 of the 256 Utah National Guard employees.

Also expected to be furloughed are 270 local health department employees and 16 employees who administer the federal Women, Infant and Children nutritional program serving some 65,000 Utahns. That program is expected to be suspended in a week.

Kristen Cox, executive director of the Governor's Office of Management and Budget, said after spending the day reviewing the impact of a shutdown and briefing the governor, there is concern about the economic repercussions of a shutdown.

"But overall, when you look at the magnitude of the programs that the state administers, both on behalf of the state and the federal government, there's just very few programs initially — initially is the key word — that will be impacted," Cox said.

While there's no estimate yet of the shutdown's financial drain on the state's economy, the costs will climb quickly if funding for federal government operations is not restored soon.

Just keeping the national parks closed through October could mean a $1 billion hit to the state's economy, said Juliette Tennent, deputy director and chief economist of the management and budget office.

Austin recalled having to struggle when the park closed in the 1970s and his late wife was furloughed from her National Park Service job for weeks during a similar budget dispute in Congress.

"At the time business was real slow and we had three little kids, and she wasn't getting her check," he recalled. This time around, Austin said, the shuttering of the park that attracts visitors from around the world may hit even harder.

"This is our peak season right now with the leaves turning," he said, what should have been an opportunity to make up for business lost during an unusually wet summer. "This is just icing on the cake."

Austin, who is relying on the nation's new Affordable Care Act to provide him with insurance after losing a leg after an accident earlier this year, said Congress is "acting like a bunch of little kids. … If it was up to me, I would put them in 'timeout.'"

Torrey Mayor Adus Dorsey said the tiny central Utah town is already feeling the effects of the partisan battle raging in Washington, D.C., because the local economy is so dependent on tourism

"Anything that happens down in the park affects us. Certainly, we've had some cancellations, people who are unsure about what's going to happen so they're just making other plans," Dorsey said. "It impacts the whole community."

The same is true in Springdale, the southern Utah town just outside Zion National Park.

While visitors to Capitol Reef will be able to continue to drive through the park on a state highway that will remain open, barricades to the heart of Zion Canyon are going up Tuesday. Trails will be off limits to visitors at all the parks.

"I hate to use the word devastating, but that's really what it would do to a small community like ours," said Dean Cook, head of the Zion Canyon Visitors Bureau and general manager of the Best Western Zion Park Inn.

The effects of the shutdown will start with employees at motels, restaurants and gift shops being told there's not enough work for them, Cook said, and then trickle down to restaurant suppliers and other business in the region.

Members of Congress, he said, "just want to use other political issues to really dictate what happens to my little community and all the others" around the country. "It really is a serious situation."

Rep. Jim Matheson, Utah's only Democrat in Congress, said greeting foreign visitors with "closed" signs at national parks won't reflect well on the United States.

"I don't think that's a very good way to promote ourselves as a country," he said.

Matheson said he's also concerned about people at Hill Air Force Base and other federal agencies who won't get paychecks during a shutdown.

"If you’re in one of those households that’s a direct and immediate impact, that's pretty significant," he said.

While Utah's Republican congressmen blame Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Obama for a shutdown, Matheson puts it at House Speaker John Boehner's feet.

Boehner, R-Ohio, could have proposed a straight funding bill in the House, which would pass with bipartisan support, Matheson said.

Matheson blamed the shutdown on "partisan bickering over spending."

"The leadership of both parties allowed political games to stand in the way of keeping our government open for business," he said.

Matheson said he voted for two provisions, removing congressional and staff exemptions from Obamacare and delaying implementation of an individual mandate for one year, saying he accepted those provisions because he supported the policies.

"However, my top priority, and where our attention should be focused, is to keep the government operating," he said. "I am disappointed that the leadership of the House of Representatives lost sight of what should have been a straight up or down vote on a funding bill."

The battle began with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who earlier this year declared he would stop the president's health care law from taking effect by pulling funding for it from the budget bill.

Lee participated last week in a marathon speech pushing that plan by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a fellow member of the tea party caucus. Lee said he felt he was taking a stand against the health care law in his votes Monday.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has joined other members of the GOP in questioning the strategy. Many in the Republican Party fear the effort by Lee and others will cause them to be blamed for the shutdown.

"It's going to hurt everybody," Hatch said of the shutdown. "Where I worry is our national parks and monuments, but most importantly our military. It's going to hurt our military. That's a bad situation."

Still, Hatch said House Republicans are listening to the American people on Obama's health care law. "They're acting responsibly," he said.

Hatch called the shutdown "a dark moment in our nation's history, and Utahns have every right to be disappointed in their government."

Hatch said he doesn't know of one Republican who wants to shut down the government.

"I do know that we're likely to blamed for it even though the Democrats are the ones who are really shutting the government down," he said.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said he didn't understand why there's not room for discussion on the House proposals.

"That's not the American way," Chaffetz said.

Contributing: McKenzie Romero

Email: lisa@deseretnews.com

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