Stateline Story

Home Heating Program May See Deep Cuts

With Congress in a cutting mood, states are worried they may have to deny home heating help to as many as 2 million families this winter.

"We're working against a worst-case scenario and we are very worried," Richard Moffi, fuel assistance program chief for the Vermont Department for Children and Families, told The Associated Press .

Congress has yet to decide on the funding level for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) for the coming winter, but "all signs point to at least a $1.1 billion cut," says Mark Wolfe, executive director, of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, an organization that represents state LIHEAP directors.

LIHEAP is a federal block grant program that provides grants to states to help low-income families pay their heating and cooling bills.

Technically, the new federal fiscal year began October 1. Short-term funding that Congress recently passed will keep the program running until a bill for 2012 can be worked out.

Advocates had hoped Congress would keep funding for LIHEAP at its 2010 level of $5.1 billion and were disappointed with President Obama's budget proposal earlier this year that would have cut LIHEAP funding by nearly 50 percent to $2.6 billion. Instead, the program got cut to $4.7 billion for 2011. 

A Senate panel recently approved a measure giving LIHEAP $3.6 billion for 2012, and a draft of a House bill would provide slightly less at $3.4 billion. Neither bill has been approved yet.

Wolfe says the proposals pending in Congress are better than the president's plan, but still would result in up to 2 million families not getting assistance. The association expects the number of households applying for assistance this winter will remain at record levels, around 9 million. That number may climb higher if unemployment remains stuck above 9 percent or if fluctuating energy prices take a turn higher.

Governors from Hawaii, Oregon and Kentucky also have weighed in, urging Congress to keep LIHEAP spending at $5 billion. A funding level of $2.6 billion could mean more than 3 million families losing help, according to a September letter signed by 13 Democrats and Rhode Island's Independent governor.

New Hampshire plans to keep its benefit level the same as last winter, about $700, AP reported. But the state would likely cut the number of households it assists if federal funding is reduced, Celeste Lovett, who runs the program in New Hampshire, told AP.

Connecticut is considering a different approach. Lawmakers there are banking on Congress giving the state $15 million more than what the governor expected. If the federal funding is below what the plan counts on, officials will find money for it in the state budget, state Representative Vickie O. Nardello told The Connecticut Mirror . Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy had proposed excluding households that rely on gas or electric heat from the program, arguing that state law protects them from having their utilities shut off for nonpayment during the winter while no such protection exists for those who rely on oil, propane, kerosene, coal or wood.

Wolfe, of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, argues that reduced LIHEAP funding might make sense if the economy were rebounding, people were getting jobs and the number of households applying for assistance were returning to the historical average of between 4.5 and 5 million families. But that is not happening. "You could easily make the case to increase funding," Wolfe says.