Federal reimbursement

The federal government shutdown that spanned 16 days and countless column inches in October was spawned by no fault of the states – save for those that elected the lawmakers who tied federal funding to a delay, repeal or reconfiguring of the Affordable Care Act. Nevertheless, the $24 billion loss to the U.S. economy brought about by the shutdown was felt acutely by the states, and Congress should work quickly and conscientiously to remedy that sting. It should begin by reimbursing states for any money they spent to reopen national parks during the shutdown.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell worked with the governors of several states – including Colorado – to allow them to reopen the parks, provided the states fronted the money needed to do so. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was among them and sent the Interior Department $360,000 to pay for Rocky Mountain National Park employees to return to work. At the time of the deal, and in the ensuing negotiations to end the shutdown, it was suggested that the states would be reimbursed for their troubles. That guarantee did not make it into the final deal approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama, leaving the states on the hook a bit longer. A measure pending in Congress would explicitly pay the states back; it should be passed and signed without delay.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., introduced the measure in the Senate, where Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, both Colorado Democrats, are co-sponsors. On the House side, Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., is carrying the bill, which has 21 co-sponsors including several from among the Colorado delegation: Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, and Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, and Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs. They are right to support the bills and should work to expedite their passage.

Rocky Mountain National Park drew 10,000 visitors during the weekend it opened, thanks to the deal struck between Jewell and Hickenlooper. This influx was significant for a region already hart hit by September floods, and the governor was right to make the loan to open the park. It is, however, the federal government’s duty to pay for its own operations and Colorado should not carry the funding burden, particularly when it was so easily avoidable – and so costly to Americans far and wide.

Mesa Verde National Park did not open during the shutdown, though efforts were under way to reopen it when the stalemate ended. In co-sponsoring the reimbursement legislation, Tipton is suggesting his awareness of the impact national parks have on their communities and the importance of funding them adequately through federal channels. In voting for the deal to reopen the federal government and in supporting the reimbursement effort, Tipton demonstrates a much-needed connection to the state he represents and the realities it faces. That is a welcome shift from the party line ideology that led to the shutdown – and the need for loans from states – in the first place.

The states that fronted money to reopen national parks did so with the understanding that they would be reimbursed. That understanding eroded in the final budget deal approved by Congress; lawmakers should move quickly to make that right.

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