Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders tells cabinet secretaries to prepare for federal government shutdown

Some agencies, programs may go dark temporarily

In this Oct. 1, 2013 file photo, a sign at the entrance of the Little Rock Central High Visitors Center notifies people that the facility is closed because of the federal government shutdown. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)
In this Oct. 1, 2013 file photo, a sign at the entrance of the Little Rock Central High Visitors Center notifies people that the facility is closed because of the federal government shutdown. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)


Arkansas state government's executive branch Cabinet secretaries will be responsible for determining which programs must be suspended and which employees will be furloughed based on certain criteria in the event of a federal government shutdown, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a memo to the 15 secretaries.

In the memo, dated Wednesday, the Republican governor said, "September 30, 2023, at midnight is the deadline for the Biden Administration to work with Congress and avoid a shutdown of the federal government.

"As a state, we must be prepared for the federal government to fail at its duty and ensure the continuation of those services vital to the protection of public health, safety and welfare, while at the same time temporarily suspending government services that rely on federal funding," said Sanders, a former White House press secretary under then-President Donald Trump.

In Washington, U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., vowed Thursday that he will not take up U.S. Senate legislation designed to keep the federal government fully running despite House Republicans' struggle to unite around an alternative, according to The Associated Press.

Out of Arkansas' 14,000-plus executive branch employees with federally funded salaries, state Department of Finance and Administration officials expect about 50 would be furloughed starting Monday if the federal government shuts down, finance department spokesman Scott Hardin said Thursday afternoon.

"The 50 employees that we anticipate may be furloughed" are at the state Department of Health, Department of Agriculture and the Department of Corrections' Division of Community Correction, he said.

The Finance and Administration Department is working closely with the governor's office and leaders of each executive branch department to determine the potential impact of a shutdown, he said.

A majority of the 15 departments receive some form of federal funding, Hardin said, and approximately 14,000 positions within the executive branch are partially or fully funded with federal dollars.

"Should a shutdown occur, employees will be notified by their Departments regarding work status for Monday," he said in a written statement. "While some may be affected, we anticipate the vast majority will continue work next week. A wide variety of factors, including the length of the shutdown and specific funding source, could alter each program's status if the shutdown continues."

State Human Services Department spokesman Gavin Lesnick said Thursday in a written statement that the department "has identified a small number of employees who would be furloughed, effective Sunday if there is a federal shutdown, and we are making plans to ensure continuity of services in any affected area."

The number of furloughed employees would be less than 50, he said.

DHS is closely following the discussions in Congress while engaging with partners in planning for the possibility of a shutdown and determining impacts to services that rely on federal funding, Lesnick said.

"Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits will continue even if there is a shutdown on Oct. 1," he said. "Medicaid is expected to have sufficient federal funding for the next three months and SNAP is funded for October without further action from Congress. We will continue to monitor the situation and make necessary adjustments as we learn more about any additional impacts."

State Education Department spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell said Thursday, "We are watching the situation closely and are working with the Governor's Office.

"We have determined there are enough funds in reserves to cover federal programs for the short term if a federal shutdown occurs," she said in a written statement.

Asked about the number of Corrections Department employees to be furloughed in the event of a shutdown, spokeswoman Dina Tyler said Thursday in a written statement, "It looks like 6 employees on the Community Correction side. They're drug treatment staff in positions funded by a federal grant."

State Agriculture Department spokesperson Ayden Massey said Thursday in a written statement, "There is no immediate concern for program suspension or furloughs at the Arkansas Department of Agriculture."

Sanders said in her memo that Cabinet secretaries will be responsible for determining which programs must be suspended and which employees will be furloughed based on the following criteria:

If a program or employee has been identified by the federal government as being necessary to protect public health, safety, or welfare, and the federal government has provided documentation guaranteeing funding during the shutdown, the program and federally funded employment may continue uninterrupted.

If an agency has sufficient federal funding and authorization from current or previous federal grants to fund a program or position, it may do so as long as funding remains available.

"Otherwise, programs and employment that are wholly or partially dependent on federal funding will be suspended because of the White House's failure to work with Congress, effective Sunday, October 1st for the duration of the shutdown," Sanders said in her memo. "The federal government will not allow us to make any exceptions unless the protection of public health, safety, and welfare would be compromised, as determined by the cabinet secretary in consultation with the Department of Finance and Administration and the Department of Transformation and Shared Services."

Sanders said her administration will do everything in its power to keep the vital functions of government working.

State Department of Labor and Licensing Chief of Staff Steve Guntharp said Thursday in a written statement, "We have 21 employees who have part of their salary paid via federal grants.

"Should the federal government shut down we have sufficient funding to keep these employees from being furloughed," he said.

HIGHER EDUCATION

A federal government shutdown could affect public universities in Arkansas, particularly the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, according to officials for the institutions.

Leslie Taylor, vice chancellor for communications and marketing at UAMS, said UAMS officials are monitoring developments in Washington and assessing the potential impact of a shutdown.

"Of our 12,000 employees, 515 are fully funded by a federal source," Taylor said via email. "Another 670 receive some amount of federal funding."

Taylor said the medical school hasn't received "any specific shutdown notices from a particular agency."

"The overarching guidance so far from the federal level is to continue on with federal grants as is," she said. "We won't be able to draw funds until the shutdown ends but we should be paid for expenses we incur during the shutdown.

"We have hundreds of federal grants across the university so it's hard to identify specific programs. However, graduate assistants and researchers are among positions that could potentially be affected," Taylor said.

John Thomas, a spokesman for the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, said the UA's leadership team is "closely monitoring the potential shutdown of the federal government and has received initial guidance from some federal agencies regarding federal agency availability, federal grants and research funding, financial aid, veteran benefits, international students and travel."

Thomas said the guidance has been communicated to people potentially affected on the UA campus. Updates will be shared at provost.uark.edu/shutdown.

Mary Hightower, a spokesperson for the UA System's Division of Agriculture, said very few of its employees would be immediately impacted by the shutdown, based on the current guidelines.

"The specifics of our response will depend on variables outside our control, such as what President Biden determines is essential or non-essential, and the length of the shutdown," she said. "However, we will always do what we can to ensure minimal impacts on our people."

Bill Smith, a spokesman for Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, said a shutdown would affect fewer than 50 ASU employees, including four who work full-time.

"Most were part-time workers on certain federal projects," Smith said via email. "We've sent a communication to those individuals today so they are aware of the potential need for them to stop work if the shutdown occurs."

He said Research and Technology Transfer and the Delta Center for Economic Development have most of the employees who would be affected.

Smith said ASU's Jonesboro campus has about 1,600 full-time employees and about 400 adjuncts and graduate assistants.

PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Education Week, a national weekly education newspaper, reported this week that while a federal government shutdown is looming and that an average 10% of school system funding is from federal sources, "most schools should largely expect business as usual -- unless the [possible] federal shutdown drags on."

Arkansas school district leaders echoed that report.

The Springdale School District, the state's largest, is aware of the potential for a shutdown and is in monitoring mode, district spokesman Trent Jones said.

"We are reviewing carefully to ensure we maintain continuity of operation," he said.

Kelsey Bailey, the Little Rock School District's chief deputy for business and operations, said Thursday that the capital city district has not made any specific plans for halting programs or furloughing its federally paid employees.

"I think if it lasts more than 30 days, we will need to ensure that our reserves are sufficient to cover our federally funded programs," Bailey said.

In the Pulaski County Special School District, spokeswoman Jessica Duff said there are no adjustments being made in the district's operations "at this time."

"We are hopeful that parents continue to be aware of the Free and Reduced Lunch application to ensure access to free meals at their school this year," Duff added.

The long-standing school meal program is federally funded, as are Title I programs to aid schools that serve high percentages of children from low-income families and Impact Aid for districts that encompass federally owned land for which local property taxes aren't collected.

Jeremy Owoh, superintendent of the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District, said the potential for a shutdown was discussed this week by school district superintendents and staff in the state Education Department's Division of Elementary and Secondary Education.

"We were told that we should not see any suspensions of federal payments," Owoh said. "We are paying close attention to the situation and will stay in contact with DESE for the latest updates."

The Jacksonville district does not receive Impact Aid funding for the Little Rock Air Force Base property but intends to apply for it this year. That application process could be affected by a shutdown, Owoh said.

AIRPORTS

Shane Carter, spokesman for the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, said the airport will continue to operate if a shutdown occurs.

"Both TSA officers and air traffic controllers are essential federal workers who are dedicated public servants that will continue working despite not getting paid until the shutdown ends," he said in a written statement.

"We are working with Kathy Webb of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance to activate a contingency plan, much like we did in 2019, should a shutdown occur and extend beyond a few days," Carter said. "If needed, the Hunger Relief Alliance and the airport will open a food distribution center at the airport to support federal employees and contractors. A 22 day response effort was held during the last shutdown that helped nearly 500 people across 12 agencies. While we hope an event of this magnitude will not be needed, we will be ready to support our federal partners experiencing hardships."

Information for this article was contributed by Bill Bowden and Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.