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
"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'
Remember, "as electricity prices
go up, the cost of air conditioning gets more expensive," Brumas
Energy aid backers find such logic
"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
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
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
"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.
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