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Montana state capitol in Helena

The Montana State Capitol building in Helena.

Montana state agencies are largely able to navigate the short-term shutdown of the federal government, but some delays have already cropped up and the state could face challenges if the shutdown continues for an extended period of time.

With an impasse between the Trump administration and Congress over border wall funding, the partial shutdown of the federal government started at midnight on Dec. 22. The shutdown has led to the furlough of thousands of federal employees as work has slowed or halted at multiple agencies.

While the function of state government is not legally affected during a federal shutdown, state workers do work closely with federal counterparts on many programs. The state also routinely taps federal funding for everything from roads to industrial cleanup to firefighting.

Specific impacts are difficult to assess because federal funding sources do not necessarily stop on a certain date, said Ronja Abel, communications director for Gov. Steve Bullock.

“That's why it's difficult to prognosticate what areas would be most affected and how quickly, largely because the budget office and agencies would be reevaluating funding and reallocating resources as the shutdown continues,” she said. “DPHHS would probably have the most immediate impact on Montanans directly as things drag on, but those specifics would likely take longer to compile.”

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality receives roughly a third of its funding from several federal agencies, but much of that funding has already been allocated for the immediate future, said Kristi Ponozzo with DEQ.

“DEQ has some federal fiscal resources already committed to get us through the short term, during which time the situation will hopefully be resolved,” she said. “DEQ receives roughly a third of its funding from several federal agencies — primarily Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Surface Mining, and the Department of Energy — so an extended shutdown could potentially disrupt our work that is funded through federal grants.”

DEQ is seeing increasing delays due to EPA furloughs with its technical staff causing some projects to be pushed back. While EPA contractors can continue to work in many cases, anything that requires direct approval is delayed, Ponozzo said.

“This includes delays in a variety of areas related to the Superfund program, such as the delivery of proposed work plans and other key decision documents,” she said. “We are also seeing delays in ongoing community engagement activities for Superfund cleanups and delays in the development of remedial investigation and feasibility studies needed to move forward with cleanup work.

“The partial shutdown is also adding delays to non-Superfund projects where we need consultation with EPA, and projects with other federal agencies, such as the (Forest Service), where we are jointly working on projects and environmental reviews.”

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The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation can weather a short-term shutdown with minimal impacts to services, said spokesman John Grassy.

The agency has seen some issues, such as not having federal instructors available for wildland firefighting training, he said. State employees that work closely with other entities, whether tribes or conservation districts housed in federal facilities, are also seeing some effects.

“Should this shutdown extend past Jan. 31, we would anticipate more challenges,” Grassy said. “It is unfortunate that the federal government has been unable to come to a resolution.”

Federal funding is usually allocated to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks well in advance as well, said spokesman Greg Lemon.

“There’s not a lot of impact on us at this point,” he said. “We’re hard at work, doing what we do managing wildlife and parks.”

State game wardens often work closely with federal law enforcement, but do not step in to enforce federal violations if the government is shut down, Lemon said.

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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Natural Resources Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter / Assistant Editor for The Independent Record.

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