Louisiana National Guard furloughs civilian employees

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- LSU System President F. King Alexander addresses the LSU Senate Faculty Tuesday in the Student Union.
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- LSU System President F. King Alexander addresses the LSU Senate Faculty Tuesday in the Student Union.

About 870 civilians affected

Many federal workers in Louisiana were sent home Tuesday on the first day of the federal government shutdown.

The Louisiana National Guard furloughed about 870 of its 1,000 civilian technicians, said Lt. Col. Michael Kazmierzak, the Guard’s spokesman.

And U.S. Attorney’s Office operations in five Louisiana cities gave unpaid leaves of absence to many of its employees, said Stephanie Finley, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana.

The impasse over the Affordable Care Act kept the House and Senate from agreeing on legislation that would allow the federal government to continue to spend money. As a result, national parks closed, hunting and fishing seasons on national wildlife refuges shutdown and LSU’s leader warned that federal grant funding for academic research would stop.

Louisiana has 21,000 federal government employees.

Thousands of those employees are being declared non-essential and furloughed, according to the White House Office of Personnel Management. Many of those “essential” employees, who continue working, will have their paychecks delayed.

The civilian technicians furloughed by the Louisiana National Guard also served as uniformed guardsmen, Kazmierzak said.

“They will be placed on unpaid status,” he said.

Active members of the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force will keep their posts during the duration of the shutdown.

“We’ll continue to support key military operations, security and other key operations,” Kazmierzak said.

Most administration and a number of operations, such as maintenance and range training, will be scaled back, he said.

Guardsmen stationed overseas will not be affected. The Louisiana National Guard has 1,025 guardsmen deployed or on their way to Afghanistan and Kuwait, Kazmierzak said.

Stephanie Finley, U.S. attorney for the Western District, said in a prepared statement that office staff who work on civil litigation will be furloughed in Lafayette, Lake Charles, Monroe, Shreveport and Alexandria, while staff members who work on criminal cases will remain on the payroll.

“Most criminal litigation and related work will continue with limited interruption, as these activities are deemed essential to the safety of human life and the protection of property,” Finley said.

“All civil litigation in which the office is involved will be curtailed or postponed to the extent possible without compromising public safety or the protection of property, and always subject to the direction of the federal courts,” Finley said.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., called the shutdown a “nightmare” scenario for federal employees and for many private businesses that do business with or rely on the government.

“It would be like if you shut down Exxon, Shell and Mobil all over the world. It could have the same kind of impact, or comparable,” she said.

“It’s a shameful day, and it squarely in my view falls on the shoulders of a portion — a radical tea party portion — minority of the Republican Party,” Landrieu said.

“The Republican Party is divided against itself. It is in that posture very unfortunate for the American people and for the Republican Party itself. This doesn’t give me joy. I think they’re going to have to fight it out. Is mainstream business going to win over ideology?”

Republicans pushed Tuesday for a conference committee of a few lawmakers to discuss possible solutions. Democrats pointed out that the GOP had blocked such negotiations for six months.

Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, argued that President Barack Obama has delayed some parts of the health care law, so Democrats should come to the table and agree to delay the individual mandate and get rid of its “sweetheart deal” for lawmakers and their staffers.

“If the two houses disagree, you come to a conference committee,” Cassidy said. “Here we have the other side saying, ‘We’re not going to negotiate; we’re just going to call people names.’ ”

Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond, whose district up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to north Baton Rouge, blamed Republicans in passage he wrote on Facebook: “How can we pick and choose what stays open and what remains closed when people’s livelihoods are on the line? I won’t do it. There are 800,000 furloughed federal employees who lie in the balance of this ruthless standoff.”

LSU President and Baton Rouge Chancellor King Alexander said the impasse in the nation’s capital will threaten LSU’s grant funding, harming one of the university’s central functions: academic research.

Alexander said universities have been preparing for Saturday, the day when the National Institute of Health starts accepting grant applications for this year’s fourth quarter.

Alexander said the government shutdown could lead to a significant backlog in the NIH’s ability to process grant applications, thereby delaying when universities find out whether they will be awarded funding.

King added that research universities such as LSU are already hurting from Congress’ failure to compromise, which led to the so-called sequester, which resulted in hundreds of billions of dollars in spending cuts spread across government agencies including public higher education.

Alexander said through August, LSU has less than half the amount of money on hand for research as last year — $17 million this year versus $38 million this time last year.

The six sites of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, which are administered by the National Park Service, were closed to visitors.

They include a visitor center in the French Quarter, the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park, the Chalmette National Historical Park and a nature preserve on Barataria Bay.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service closed all hunting and fishing seasons on national wildlife refuges in Louisiana during the shutdown.

Public access, events and wildlife management activities also are being cut off for now.

Impacted wildlife refuges in Louisiana include the ones at Bayou Sauvage, Bayou Teche, Big Branch Marsh, Bogue Chitto, Breton, Delta and Mandalay.

Koran Addo of the Capitol news bureau, Billy Gunn of the Acadiana bureau and Sandy Davis of the Metro desk contributed to this report.