Thousands of federal government employees in Maine already are feeling the pinch of a partial government shutdown in lost wages, but as it drags on, the effects will spread – from delays in buying a home, to difficulties scheduling hearings in federal courts, to roadblocks for small businesses.
There’s already a noticeable impact on real estate closings, said Kim Gleason, who owns the McAllistar real estate firm in Hallowell. She said much of the process, from getting low rates for first-time buyers to federal guarantees of mortgages and income verification, are automated, but humans usually play a role at some point and they can’t if federal workers are furloughed.
“Ultimately, there’s a person at the end, someone” who needs to be involved, Gleason said.
The immediate effects of the shutdown on the real estate market are unclear, but it’s expected to delay Federal Housing Administration loans that help first-time buyers and support for mortgages from quasi-governmental agencies such as Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
Some popular business loan programs from the Small Business Administration have been suspended, although the agency will still extend disaster loans and its Small Business Development Centers have some matching funds to provide. Last year, the Maine office of the SBA approved roughly 360 loans through its 504 and 7(a) programs, awarding $83 million to small businesses around the state.
Small businesses also are being affected by confusion about new tax codes passed last spring. An initial version of the tax reform imposed an income cap on a 20 percent tax deduction for certain categories of mom-and-pop businesses, but then rescinded it in a later version. Clarity has to come from the Department of Treasury, which is one of the federal agencies affected by the shutdown. Until then, small businesses are in limbo on how to file their 2018 taxes.
The shutdown is having an impact on a wide array of other programs – Department of Agriculture staff won’t be attending an agriculture trade show in Maine next week, according to Andrew Colvin, a spokesman for Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District.
“This means that the largest statewide conference aimed at networking and providing resources for farmers and small businesses won’t have Rural Development, Farm Services Agency or Natural Resource Conservation Service folks there to share information on grants, loan programs and other services they provide,” Colvin said.
FOOD, FED AID, FIRE STATION
The White House announced this week that federal tax returns and refunds will be processed by the Internal Revenue Service, but Colvin pointed out that taxpayer assistance programs will be shut down, along with a consumer complaint system operated by the Federal Trade Commission and inspection programs for water and hazardous waste.
And there are concerns that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program may run out of money as early as February.
Officials in Portland say they are concerned about an array of federal aid programs, including rental subsidies for low-income residents.
City Manager Jon Jennings said the city’s finance director is currently working on an analysis about which programs and grant funding could be affected. There’s no immediate impact, but “if it goes on for months and months it will definitely have an impact,” Jennings told city councilors Monday.
Officials in Farmingdale already are feeling the effects. The town wanted to tap a USDA loan program to build a new $1.7 million fire station, but that program is suspended. Eager to get the project out to bid before March, officials are looking for a loan from a bank and finding higher interest rates.
Funding for housing vouchers for low-income families could be in jeopardy, according to the Portland Housing Authority.
PHA Executive Director Mark Adelson said that his agency serves 1,790 households with rental vouchers for about 3,700 residents. And “hundreds” of other rental subsidies are at risk, he said.
Adelson said that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has funding through February for its Housing Choice Voucher program and its public housing operating fund.
“We’ve also been informed that there is not currently enough money to make these payments for March, if the government shutdown continues until then,” Adelson said. “Obviously, it’s critical for Congress to agree on a funding bill as soon as possible.”
The Justice Department is trying to minimize the impact of the shutdown on court cases, but the Boston Immigration Court, which has jurisdiction over Maine cases, won’t hold hearings for people who have not been detained.
Those cases will be “rescheduled for an unknown future date,” said Julia M. Brown, an advocacy and outreach attorney for the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project. “This date could be weeks, months, or years from now.”
Brown noted that even before the shutdown, the immigration courts have faced “a massive backlog. Some individuals who have already been waiting years to have their cases heard may now have to wait years longer due to the shutdown.”
Maine’s domestic violence prevention programs soon will be facing more budgetary uncertainty because of the shutdown.
Although Maine’s eight domestic violence shelters draw about 75 percent of their funding from federal sources, the shutdown has not yet impeded the distribution of cash that’s already been approved for spending by local groups, said Francine Garland Stark, the executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.
“We would certainly want to reassure anyone who needs services, we’re not closed and we’re never closed,” Stark said. “We do what we do, 24 hours a day.”
That flow of funds will continue until at least Jan. 18, Stark said, but a broader, long-term concern, Stark said, lies in whether Congress will reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, one of the major funding sources for local domestic violence groups.
“If that is unavailable to us, then we’re talking about serious, serious impact,” Stark said. “Those consequences would be drastic.”
— With contributions from Staff Writers Kevin Miller, Megan Gray, Randy Billings and Matt Byrne at the Press Herald, and Sam Shepherd at the Kennebec Journal.