SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert on Monday said Congress should continue the battle over funding the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that could result in employee furloughs and "let the chips go where they may."
Earlier in the day, Herbert and other governors meeting in Washington, D.C., were warned by President Barack Obama that when the department's $40 billion budget runs out Feb. 27, they'll feel a direct impact on their economies and security.
In Utah, there are 542 full-time federal employees who would face either a furlough or working without pay until the dispute stemming from the president's immigration policies is settled.
It's expected that nationwide, about 15 percent of the department's 230,000 employees would be furloughed, while Transportation Security Administration officers at airports and others deemed essential would stay on the job.
"The uncertainty over funding for DHS is a cloud hanging over the heads of the men and women of the department," a statement issued by Homeland Security read.
Herbert, who will become chairman of the National Governors Association this summer, told reporters in a conference call that a Homeland Security shutdown is a source of "some concern and angst" by the state leaders.
He said governors want to see the president and Congress, now under Republican control, work together on immigration even though it is a complex and emotional issue.
But, Utah's GOP governor said, Congress should go ahead and pass a funding bill that does not include money for Obama's legal protections for immigrants without documentation, currently the subject of a court challenge.
"That's a process that needs to be played out," Herbert said, despite the attempt by Democrats to stop the bill and the president's promise to veto it, repeated Monday to the governors during their White House visit.
"If the president wants to veto it, let him veto it and let the chips go where they may," Herbert said. "Let's get something done. We don't need to have this gamesmanship that's going on."
He said the "power of the purse really is the leverage that House members have, and they're playing that card," an apparent strategy to force the president to resolve the immigration issue that may appear "illogical to some of us on the outside."
The Utah Department of Public Safety, which relies on Homeland Security for Federal Emergency Management Agency funds and coordinates daily on security threats, initially expects minimal impact from a shutdown.
But state Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires said that could change if the shutdown drags on.
"If we were to see this last say, past July, then there is a chance we would have to look at suspending some of our state services and furloughing some of our personnel," Squires said.
The department has more than 50 emergency management employees funded by FEMA grants, he said, as are local government emergency management employees around the state.
Squires said the two federal Homeland Security intelligence and analysis division employees assigned to work with Utah's Statewide Information and Analysis Center would be considered essential and not furloughed if there is a shutdown.
The center, created to share information between federal, tribal, state and local law enforcement, does not rely on federal workers who would be considered nonessential.
"I have seen this happen too many times over the years and didn't want to be in a situation where we have to alter or suspend our operations because of what was happening" as the result of a shutdown, Squires said.
He said all of Homeland Security's operations have a presence in Utah, including the Secret Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, and interact with the state department.
Squires said he believes whatever happens in Washington, that will continue.
"I'm confident the necessary connections will be made so we won't see a decrease in services that affect public safety," he said.
The statement from Homeland Security was less optimistic.
It stated that if grant-funded state and local employees are furloughed, that means "ceasing any further activity intended to help build and sustain state and local capabilities to respond to terrorism, disasters and other emergencies."
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