Rising heating costs coupled with increased austerity in Congress could leave many low-income Americans in the cold this winter, 13 state governors warned this week.
In a letter dated September 12, the governors asked Congressional leaders to fully fund a shrunken federal program that helps people in low-income households pay their energy bills.
For this year, Congress allocated $3.47 billion to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), its lowest funding since 2009. Congress also eliminated additional funds for states in case of emergency.
The program, which on average provides households $500 in heating assistance and $200 for cooling, served about 8.9 million people in 2011, many of them disabled or elderly, according to the National Energy Assistance Director's Association.
But with winter still months away, some states have already tapped their heating funds to provide cooling relief to combat the summer's record-shattering heat, as Stateline has reported. That includes Illinois, which spent $10 million to keep 74,000 people cool, potentially leaving some 20,000 residents without heating help as temperatures decline.
“We pretty much had no choice but to rob Peter to pay Paul,” Larry Dawson, deputy director of the state's Office of Energy Assistance, told Stateline last month.
In their letter, the governors, most of whom represent states in the Midwest and along the Atlantic Coast, asked Congress to keep next year's LIHEAP funding steady while tacking on the emergency funds slashed in the previous budget.
The governors also requested that the money be appropriated up front, “to provide needed certainty to states and territories, as spending patterns for LIHEAP assistance are not in sync with the fiscal year.”
House lawmakers Monday introduced a continuing resolution, which would fund the government for the next six months. The plan, now up for debate, would keep energy assistance steady, but it would not add funds for emergencies.
“I hope Washington acts quickly to allocate the funds in full and in a timely manner,” said Governor Paul LePage, of Maine, where about 54,000 households received help in paying some of the country's most expensive energy bills.
“LIHEAP is vital to helping Mainers make it through the winter. Our elderly population is especially susceptible to the cold weather, and we need to make sure they are well taken care of,” the Republican said in a statement.