State alerts thousands of possible loss of funds

msantos@theolympian.comJune 27, 2013 

Because legislators didn’t agree on a budget by 5 p.m. Wednesday, thousands of immigrants, pregnant women and people with disabilities will receive letters telling them they could stop receiving state services next week.

The state Department of Social and Health Services was forced to send out notifications Wednesday warning people that state government could shut down Monday if lawmakers can’t finalize a budget by Sunday night, agency spokeswoman Chris Case said.

The largest batch of letters DSHS sent out Wednesday will reach 67,000 people, including legal immigrants who receive state-funded food assistance, as well as pregnant women and people with disabilities, Case said. More letters will go out Thursday if lawmakers still haven’t announced an agreement on the state budget, she said.

State government also has notified grocery stores that in the event of a shutdown July 1, the stores won’t be reimbursed for infant formula and other food sold to mothers and pregnant women using government vouchers in the Women, Infants and Children program.

“We won’t be able to reimburse the stores, so stores won’t be accepting them,” Department of Health spokesman Tim Church said. “This is really important to moms and toddlers to keep them healthy.”

Some 195,000 Washingtonians receive benefits each month from the program, Church said.

Additionally, the state Health Care Authority will notify 19,000 children who aren’t legal U.S. residents that their health care coverage could end July 1, agency spokesman Jim Stevenson said. Those notices to participants in the Children’s Health Program will most likely be sent Thursday, he said.

Construction projects could be affected as well, because the state Department of Labor and Industries would not conduct electrical inspections if the shutdown occurs, said Mary Alice Heuschel, Gov. Jay Inslee’s chief of staff.

While lawmakers have until June 30 to pass a budget and get it signed by Inslee to avoid a shutdown, certain contractual and legal requirements mean state agencies need to send advance notice of potential disruptions in service, Heuschel said.

“This is a responsible approach to contingency planning, and this will be a state of emergency in our state if this does occur,” Heuschel told reporters Wednesday.

State parks also are facing the possibility of canceling 7,000 reservations during the first week of July, the governor’s office said.

The organizers of one event, a large fiddle festival involving 5,000 people set to begin Sunday at Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend, already have been told of the possibility of park closures next week, parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter said.

Robert Birman, the executive director of Centrum, the nonprofit organizing the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, said organizers have made a backup plan to hold the weeklong event at the fairgrounds in Port Townsend. But they are optimistic lawmakers won’t put them in that position, he said.

“We’ve been following this very closely,” Birman said. “We’re confident that Washington will do what’s right.”

Parks officials aren’t notifying individual reservation holders yet, Painter said, but are telling concerned callers that they might want to wait and see what happens at the Capitol, since a budget deal could emerge at any time.

“The best approach is just hang on and don’t panic, and if a closure should happen, then you can get a refund,” Painter said.

If a budget deal is reached by Sunday, making this week’s warnings a false alarm, agencies will use social media and their websites to help tell people they’re still in business, Case, the DSHS spokeswoman, said.

“We’ll tweet about it; we’ll put it on Facebook; we’ve got an emergency phone number,” Case said. “Then we have to figure out how to tell the clients, ‘Nevermind, we’re still here.’”

Staff writer Jordan Schrader contributed to this report. Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209

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