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Energy Bill Vote Left Out In Cold

Fuel Aid Funding At A Stalemate

February 21, 2006
By DAVID LIGHTMAN, Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- Neither a snowstorm, nor bitter cold, nor even a promise from the U.S. Senate majority leader could get Congress to approve extra money to help people with low incomes pay their energy bills this winter.

Members of Congress, in the middle of a "Presidents' Day recess" this week and not due back until Feb. 27, left town without acting on a proposal to add $1 billion to the low-income energy assistance program.

As a result, Connecticut is likely to run out of federal money for its program in about a month, and 12 other states have already exhausted their funds.

"It's bad news," said Claudette Beaulieu, a Connecticut Department of Social Services deputy commissioner.

The state has $48 million in federal money available for the energy program, and has committed $37.5 million so far. Because the program, which is expected to serve 85,000 households this winter, spends at a rate of about $2 million a week, Connecticut officials will have to tap state money soon to pay the bills, something the state has not done in years.

Connecticut and other states had fully expected Washington's help by now - particularly after Senate leaders promised a vote as soon as members finished deliberating over the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

But Alito was confirmed Jan. 31 and, since then, 11 senators have stymied efforts to vote on energy aid. Some are Southerners who see their states as being shortchanged, while others think the program costs too much.

Leading this pack is Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "It gets very hot in the South in the summer, and those states should have more of this money," said Mike Brumas, Sessions' communications director.

Remember, "as electricity prices go up, the cost of air conditioning gets more expensive," Brumas said.

Energy aid backers find such logic ridiculous.

"While some of the most vulnerable people in Connecticut are literally freezing in their homes," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., "the Republican majority, for the sake of empty gestures toward the broken federal budget they themselves created, is suppressing" efforts to help those who need it.

No one seems close to breaking this deadlock, even though states throughout the Midwest and Northeast are already out of money, including Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

New York's allotment is expected to be depleted by mid-March, and Ohio estimates it has enough funds only to get through February. In some cases throughout the nation, people are being turned away, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association.

The problem is exacerbated by two trends this winter: Energy prices are higher than last year, and - despite the relatively modest temperatures - more people are seeking help. Applications are up about 12.3 percent over the 2004-05 winter, the most in 12 years.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington research group, estimated that the program needs about $4.2 billion to meet its current obligations. Because of previously passed budget bills, it is currently slated to get about $2 billion, so even the extra $1 billion would not be enough.

The biggest problem many consumers are likely to face will probably come in spring, when public utility companies lift their moratoriums on shutting off delinquent customers, said Mark Wolfe, director of the energy assistance directors group.

"No one is going to freeze to death, but we're worried there will be a record number of cutoffs later this year," he said. (Private oil companies are not required to deliver oil to those who can't pay for it.)

While social service agencies scramble, Congress has done little to break the ice. So far this year, the House has met for recorded votes on six days; the Senate, on eight. Most lawmakers left for the current recess last Thursday.

Leading the Senate charge for more money is Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine and other New England lawmakers. In December, Snowe lost her bid to keep an extra $2 billion for fuel assistance in a defense spending bill.

To calm an angry Snowe and others, Senate leaders pledged that members would vote on the extra energy money as soon as it returned this year, right after it voted on whether to confirm Alito.

Snowe is still waiting, even though the setting seemed perfect this month for quick action. Not only did the warm Northeast winter turn cold, but a record snowfall roared up the northeastern coastline last week.

Still, Sessions and his allies would not budge. Part of their anger came in the way Snowe's bill set the rules for the money: $250 million would be distributed to states according to a long-set formula, while another $750 million would be awarded based on need.

If the entire $1 billion was all given out under the formula, Southern states would do much better. Alabama, for instance, would get $46.5 million, almost triple what it now receives. Under the Snowe plan, it would be guaranteed only $23.7 million.

Oklahoma, where Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is a leading opponent of Snowe's measure, would get $37 million under the old formula, up from the current $15 million. Snowe's method would assure Oklahoma of only $21.8 million.

But under the formula favored by Southerners, Maine, which now gets $26.5 million, would only get an extra $800,000. Connecticut would get another $17.5 million.

Members are not sure how to untie this legislative knot. Snowe and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-3rd District, who is pushing the funding in the House, say the budget argument is weak because they only want to take money approved for next year and move it to this winter.

And while the claim of air conditioning help may be valid, it's February, they said, and people need aid this winter.

"With families having to make tough choices between heating their homes, or paying for groceries or prescription drugs," said DeLauro, "Congress needs to act now to address these immediate needs."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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