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State prepares for possible shutdown, but full impact unclear

Prisoners won’t run free and cops won’t disappear from the highways if the budget crisis leads to a shutdown of Arizona state government. But many of the services Arizonans rely on will be conspicuously absent, as will the paychecks of those who provide them.

With Gov. Jan Brewer and the Legislature at an impasse in their budget negotiations and the end of the fiscal year less than two weeks away, state agencies are drawing up contingency plans for how they will operate during a shutdown if there is no budget in place on July 1. Which services qualify as essential, and will therefore continue during a shutdown, remains to be seen.

“It depends upon what is determined to be essential and nonessential,” said Department of Administration spokesman Alan Ecker. “It’s too early to be able to answer specific questions on what stays open and what closes.”

In early June, DOA Director Bill Bell sent a memo to agency heads asking to identify the essential services they will continue to provide in the event of a government shutdown. The memo defined essential services as those that are required by the state or federal constitutions; required by court order; mandated by voters; or are necessary for the continuation of essential services, such as warrants for payroll for correctional officers.

Perhaps few people will be impacted as heavily by a shutdown as those who rely on the state for their paychecks. Agencies are still trying to determine how many of the state’s 41,000 employees will continue working during a shutdown, but anyone who doesn’t work won’t get paid. Highway construction projects, hailed as job-creators during bleak economic times, will go on hiatus as well, leaving those employees with unpaid days off.

The Arizona Department of Transportation will close Motor Vehicle Division offices to the public, though computer support personnel will remain on the job to assist law enforcement. Commercial-truck and driver-safety inspections and the permitting and weighing of commercial vehicles will be suspended as well.

The Department of Health Services will be forced to suspend infectious-disease monitoring and testing, as well as inspections of facilities such as child-care centers, nursing homes and assisted-living centers, according to Director Will Humble. The issuing of death certificates is considered an essential service that would continue, he said, but birth certificates would have to wait until the shutdown ended.

The Women, Infants and Children program, a nutrition program for pregnant and postpartum women and children under the age of five, is likely to see a disruption in its food distribution if funding were cut off for more than a few days, Humble said.

At the Department of Economic Security, investigations of abuse complaints filed with Child Protective Services and Adult Protective Services would stop, according to spokesperson Kevan Kaighn. Cash-assistance payments to low-income families would cease temporarily, as would services for victims of domestic violence, the homeless and people with developmental disabilities.
Services that would continue during a shutdown are those considered vital to public safety. Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan said the state’s prisons would continue running, though inmate education programs would be halted and visitation would be suspended.

“If there was a government shutdown, the Department of Corrections would continue to operate in an emergency, essential-service mode only,” Ryan said. “We have to house inmates, secure them, feed them and provide for their medical needs.”

Similarly, the Department of Public Safety would continue patrolling the state’s highways, and support staff such as dispatchers and crime lab technicians would continue working as well, according to DPS spokesman Lt. James Warriner. Nonessential services that would be suspended include handgun clearance for concealed-weapons permits and licensing for security guards.

“We will have officers out on the streets, and we will be acting more in a reactive state than doing much proactive stuff,” Warriner said.

Warriner said DPS has not yet determined what impact a government shutdown would have on the state’s controversial photo-enforcement program.

The Arizona State Hospital would remain open during a shutdown as well. Humble said the Department of Health Services has a constitutionally mandated responsibility to provide mental health services, and unlike some government agencies that plan to operate with a skeleton staff during a shutdown, the hospital must be fully staffed or risk losing its accreditation.

The department also would continue its screening program for newborns, which tests children for a variety of maladies. That service is critical, Humble said, because some of the metabolic disorders for which the department tests could lead to a lifetime of disabilities if not detected and treated within several days of birth.

Fortunately for the people who rely on the Arizona State Hospital for treatment, the Department of Health Services has other sources of revenue it can fall back on besides the state’s general fund. Humble said the department could use state Lottery money to keep the hospital open, though the $180,000-a-day cost to run the hospital would have to be paid back once the shutdown ended and a budget was in place.

“I have enough money for a week or so,” Humble said of the Lottery money that would keep the state hospital open during a shutdown. “After that I’d have to figure out what other funding source I’m going to use.”

Not all state agencies have funding sources they can fall back on. Operating funds for critical services at agencies such as DPS or the Department of Corrections would have to come from an emergency appropriation approved by the Legislature and governor.

“I know the governor takes public safety very seriously, and that we’re assured that we will be able to operate at a reduced level, that we’ll be able to meet all the needs for the residents of Arizona,” Warriner said.

Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman said the Governor’s Office is examining the issue to determine what kind of emergency appropriation, if any, would be required to keep essential services going during a shutdown. “There’s differing opinions about what exactly would have to take place, but that’s a distinct possibility,” he said.

It’s theoretically possible, Senesman said, that some agencies would be able to temporarily fall back on other revenue sources, such as Humble’s plan to use Lottery money to keep the state hospital open, but “without an appropriation it’s certainly uncharted legal territory.”

Senseman also noted that before any emergency appropriations could be made, Brewer and the Legislature would have to agree on what constitutes an essential service.

Talk of a government shutdown heated up in early June after the Legislature passed a budget package but refused to send it to Brewer, who is widely expected to veto the bills. Brewer has not said whether she will veto, but said the legislative budget cuts too much spending from education and social services, and has asked the Arizona Supreme Court to force the Legislature to send her its budget bills. Republican lawmakers have been equally critical of Brewer’s proposed budget, which includes a temporary 1-cent sales tax increase that she expects would generate $1 billion annually for the next three years.

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