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Officials say cost of government shutdown preparations was borne by staffers, not taxpayers

Post by Brad Shannon / The Olympian on July 5, 2013 at 5:56 pm with No Comments »
July 5, 2013 6:30 pm
David Schumacher
David Schumacher

Threats of a government shutdown were a distraction and caused anxiety for a lot of state employees last month, but state officials say they doubt the Legislature’s logjam on a budget added real costs for taxpayers. ”I don’t think there would be an actual cost,” state budget director David Schumacher said in an interview, adding that it unquestionably added to the workload of top staffers in state agencies. “It just kind of filled up a lot of time they could have been working on other things.”

No tally of costs is planned because, as Schumacher put it, it would add just another chores for agencies.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s spokesman David Postman said most affected staffers were just putting in extra time they are not paid for on weekends or nights.

I have a version of this story in the works for Monday’s paper.

A shutdown on July 1 would have been historic – although preparations for a shutdown were made in 1991 when then-Gov. Booth Gardner signed a budget late on June 30 – just minutes before the new budget year began. In 2001, then-Gov. Gary Locke signed a budget deal in late June and had executive orders ready if a shutdown was needed.

In both cases government agencies went through what-if exercises and line workers were left to wonder if they’d be temporarily furloughed – or go on working. In this case, Inslee’s Cabinet agency leaders and own staffers were identifying state services such as prisons that could remain open without a budget, and the agency leaders then had to notify more than 26,000 workers they could be furloughed and thousands of vendors that their contracts would be on hold.

Schumacher said most of the work was done at the senior level. “A lot of line workers they may have been worried, but the directors, deputies and attorneys were all scrambling around,” Schumacher explained. “I think it just made for a less than efficient month of June. It clogged up a lot of things but it was the right thing to do. We had to do it.”

At the Department of Social and Health Services, which is the state’s largest agency, some notices never went out.

“The cost was more frustration than money,’’ spokesman Thomas Shapley said.

Carol Dotlich, president of the Washington Federation of State Employees, said she thinks the uncertainty was “devastating” for some workers who did not know if they’d work or not work.  ”I think the financial pressure unnerved most people,” Dotlich said.

The frustration was felt differently at different agencies.

“The contingency planning did not pose a problem and may have been good for us to take that kind of look at the organization and see what we needed to do to move quickly on something like that,” said Jim Stevenson, spokesman for the state Health Care Authority, which oversees state worker health plans and also Medicaid.

“The uncertainty was something else,” Stevenson added. “People got layoff notices early in the week. When we weren’t able to rescind them until after 5 o’clock on Friday, a lot of worry went into that for staff. I’m sure that cut into some of the workload that otherwise would have been handled.’’

At the Employment Security Department, which has been laying off staff permanently as some of the federal government’s Great Recession funding runs out, spokeswoman Sheryl Hutchison said the threat of a shutdown mobilized staff.

“It was pretty much hands on deck for a week here,’’ Hutchison said, suggesting that “many thousands of dollars worth of time’’ was diverted. “It’s not additional cost. Other work didn’t get done.’’

Hutchison had taken leave to go to Palm Springs when the crisis hit. “I was on vacation and I worked four of the five days I was down there,” she said, remembering countless conference calls on her own time. “I was literally sitting pool side one night.’’

Many ESD staffers were already upset at the ongoing layoffs so for some it was “just one more thing.” Others never believed a shutdown would happen even as the agency was notifying hundreds of vendors that the state would not let them incur costs for the state if there was no budget to authorize the spending.

“Nevertheless I got my first layoff notice ever,” Hutchison said. “It’s going to be framed on my wall.’’

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