Potential government shutdown would hit hardest at Colorado Springs military bases

Author: Tom Roeder, The Gazette - January 18, 2018 - Updated: January 18, 2018

Col David Hodne, right, stands with Maj. Gen. Ryan Gonsalves Friday, June 9, 2017, during a welcome ceremony for incoming 4th Infantry Division Deputy Commander Hodne at Fort Carson. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Hurried shutdown planning meetings began at military bases across the Pikes Peak region Wednesday as leaders prepared for federal budget gridlock that would come if a deal isn’t approved by Friday.

The biggest impact of a federal shutdown would hit at the five bases, where as many as 6,000 civilian employees face furloughs, troops could see pay delays and amenities like military grocery stores and daycare centers could shutter until a budget accord is reached.

“We are hopeful that there is enough time for Congress to prevent a lapse in appropriations,” U.S. Northern Command said in a statement issued Wednesday.

On Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan rolled out a short-term budget proposal with GOP backing. That bill faced an uncertain future in the upper chamber where Senate leaders will need at least nine Democrats to join majority Republicans to advance it to a vote.

It’s that uncertainty that had bases bracing for trouble Wednesday.

“Prudent management requires planning for the possibility of a shutdown,” the Northern Command statement said.

Colorado Springs Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn was optimistic that the GOP can get a short-term deal done before Friday’s deadline.

“No one is going to shut down the government,” he predicted.

But in the Senate, where tensions remain high over last week’s failure to reach an immigration accord – an effort that notoriously devolved into scatological language – things look less rosy.

When asked for Colorado Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s position on the shutdown-stopping effort, his staff referred to his recent social media posts on immigration issues.

“Democrats and Republicans negotiated in good faith and came to an agreement that protects Dreamers and increases border security,” Bennet wrote. “We’ll keep working to build support for this deal. I urge my colleagues to join me in doing the right thing.”

During the last shutdown on Oct. 1 2013, more than 6,000 civilian Defense Department workers were off the job in Colorado Springs, veterans disability claims piled up and federal parks closed.

The suffering of 2013 may have been at its worst at the Air Force Academy, where a civilian employee in charge of ordering toilet paper for dormitories was furloughed, creating a temporary crisis for cadets.

“We hope it doesn’t go on for too much longer,” Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, then the academy’s superintendent, said of the tissue issue.

In 2013, lawmakers pushed through a stop-gap measure to cover military paychecks. This time, troops, who have to report for duty no matter what Congress does, could see their pay delayed until a deal is reached.

The military has long had plans in place for government shutdown. The ongoing wars against Islamic State terrorists will continue and troops will have a normal day at war in Afghanistan.

The military has ample supplies in place to continue on course without a budget.

On the home front, though, shutdowns impact most of the military’s civilian workers. At Peterson Air Force Base alone, that’s nearly 3,000 employees. There are hundreds more at Schriever Air Force Base, the academy and Fort Carson.

Some workers will be deemed “essential” under Pentagon plans, allowing them to stay on the job, though they may have to wait for pay.

The rest will be placed on unpaid leave.

In the past, Congress has issued a shutdown apology of sorts by issuing back pay for furloughed civilians once a budget is in place. But that’s not guaranteed.

The looming shutdown will have little impact for state and local government.

If the federal government does shut down, Colorado Springs spokeswoman Jamie Fabos said the city is expected to carry on with “business as usual.” None of the city’s services will be impacted, she said. Even the city’s 70 federally funded employees will remain at work.

County operations wouldn’t see immediate impact, said El Paso County spokesman Dave Rose. A budget impasse at the national level could delay federal reimbursements, but the county has contingency plans in place to make sure costs are covered in the meantime, Rose said.

But in Colorado Springs, where an estimated 50 cents of every payroll dollar comes from Pentagon spending, a long-term shutdown would have a massive impact.

An estimated one worker in five here is on the federal payroll, and the overwhelming majority of those federal workers are in military-related jobs. Annually, the military pumps $7.7 billion into El Paso County.

Defense contractors, who bring in an estimated $2.1 billion in military spending here, could see their budgets impacted if the federal standoff lingers.

Lamborn blamed Democrats for putting all that money at risk, saying shutdowns shouldn’t be a negotiating tool when they involve Pentagon money.

“I really am angered when anyone, in this case senate Democrats, hold the military hostage,” he said.

Democrats, though, are quick to blame the GOP, which holds majorities in Congress and controls the White House. They’re also using the shutdown to target Trump.

“After pushing for shutdown last year, will he keep pushing the government to the brink of a shutdown?” asked the Senate Democratic Caucus on Twitter.

Gazette Reporters Conrad Swanson and Rachel Riley contributed to this report.

Tom Roeder, The Gazette

Tom Roeder, The Gazette