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States that opened parks during shutdown want payback

WASHINGTON — The “closed” signs at the national parks have been down for weeks but states still don’t know whether they will be reimbursed by federal taxpayers for their costs of reopening landmarks such as the Grand Canyon and Statue of Liberty during the partial government shutdown.

“This a federal responsibility,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday, saying his state stepped in “because of dysfunctionality in Washington” and it’s time for the U.S. government to reimburse his state “for the goodwill of the people of Utah.”

Utah and five other states — Arizona, Colorado, New York, South Dakota and Tennessee — wired more than $2 million to Washington to reopen parks after taking an economic hit from the lost tourist dollars during the October shutdown.

But the National Park Service has regarded the payments as donations, saying Congress would need to pass legislation authorizing reimbursement.

National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis told a congressional hearing last month that when states agreed to pick up the costs, the park service made it “very clear” that there was “no guarantee that they’re going to get this money back.”

Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate to provide for reimbursement. South Dakota used private donations to reopen Mount Rushmore during the shutdown, but other states dipped into their own funds.

Herbert, a Republican, said the money was provided based on the understanding it was a loan and that Interior Department officials would support congressional legislation providing for reimbursement.

The legislation, while enjoying bipartisan support, faces uncertain prospects at a time when Congress faces more budget cuts. Still, Congress did vote to give back pay to federal workers furloughed during the shutdown.

Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., the bill’s chief sponsor in the House, said it was wrong to force states to “bear even more of a financial burden because of Washington’s failure.”

But Steve Ellis of the watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense said that “a state making a determination that it is in their interest to pay to reopen a national park during the shutdown was a conscious decision by a government entity. They didn’t have to do that. They should not be reimbursed.”

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