By Rebecca Beitsch

When Utah shelled out nearly $2 million to keep its national parks open during the federal government’s two-week shutdown in 2013, state leaders thought the federal government would pay them back all the money once it reopened. It didn’t.

The states of Arizona, Colorado, New York, South Dakota and Tennessee also got stiffed — despite efforts by their congressional delegations to get all the money returned.

“We still haven’t been paid back,” said Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory, a Republican who years later sponsored a measure to encourage the federal government to pay back the state after the 2013 shutdown. “It was about $2 million, and they paid us about $1 million and then forgot about us.”

In January, Congress’ inaction on a spending bill forced another brief shutdown. Arizona wired nearly $188,000 to the Department of the Interior to keep the Grand Canyon open for a week, though ultimately just one day’s worth of the money was needed. Similarly New York agreed to spend about $65,000 a day to keep the Statue of Liberty alight.

As Congress stares down yet another deadline Thursday, state leaders once again may have to decide whether to open their own wallets to protect their local tourism industries.

Despite the uncertainty of being reimbursed, some of them undoubtedly will grit their teeth and pay up.

“It has a tremendous economic impact in terms of tourism and revenue, and we are willing to do what it takes to keep the gates open,” said Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican.

The federal government reimburses states for money they spend during shutdowns on state-administered federal programs, such as Medicaid.

But in 2013, states signed special donation agreements with the National Park Service. Under the deals, any unused money would be returned to the states. To get all of their money back, however, states would have to rely on Congress to authorize repayment.

Nevertheless, in 2013 when Utah tapped into state park money and wired it to the federal government, it was “with the understanding, we thought, that that money would be refunded once the federal government came back into operation,” said Fred Hayes, director of Utah’s Division of Parks and Recreation.

Utah paid nearly $1.7 million in 2013 to keep open its five national parks in the state’s tourism-reliant southern region. The federal government paid back the state about $666,000.

When the balance hadn’t been reimbursed two years later, the states’ congressional delegations sponsored legislation that would have returned a total of $2 million to the six states that made payments to keep parks open.

“It’s only fair and right for the state to be reimbursed for picking up the federal government’s slack,” Republican U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said at the time. 

Neither bill got out of committee.

But Ptak, the Arizona governor’s spokesman, said recently that the state didn’t hesitate to send money during last month’s brief shutdown and has been coordinating with the park service regarding the possibility of another one. Arizona wired $651,000 to keep the Grand Canyon open in 2013; just $186,000 in unused money was returned.

The sentiment is similar in Utah, which didn’t send anything for the January shutdown. State leaders say they don’t regret spending state dollars in 2013, though, and would do so again.

“You can worry yourself to death, but that’s not going to make the money come back,” Hayes said. “Small businesses in these gateway communities are all mom and pop operations, not franchises that can just move money around.”

“Pop is making the coffee, and mom is serving it. So to tell those folks ‘Sorry, we can’t help you’ is not an option.”

Bryce Canyon City, Utah, located just outside Bryce Canyon National Park, was one of the communities helped by the state’s spending. The economy of the town of 200 full-time residents is centered on Ruby’s Inn, established in 1916, and descendants of the founding hotelier essentially run the town.

The mayor, Shiloh Syrett, is Ruby’s great-grandson and is also related to each of the five members of the City Council. He’s also an accountant at the hotel, which employs 300 to 400 workers during the tourist season. A big dip in visitors could mean layoffs.

“Most of our tourism is foreign-based, so people pay a lot of money to get over here and go to Bryce Canyon National Park, so that can be devastating for them,” Syrett said. “I definitely feel like the state’s looking out for their best interests because tourism is a big part of state revenue. I’m sure they’d do it again if they had to.”

Ivory, the Utah state representative, said states have little choice.

“I don’t know if it’s shutdown fatigue, it’s more like shutdown PTSD,” Ivory said. “As the federal government shuts down they can sit idly by and think it’s just numbers, but for us, it’s our neighbors.”