Lawmakers Debate Plan To Restrict Home-Heating Aid
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING
September 27, 2011
HARTFORD — With federal money being slashed deeply by President Obama, state legislators Tuesday debated the merits of a plan by the Malloy administration to distribute the federal money only to residents who use oil to heat their homes.
The idea is being proposed because some low-income citizens who heat their homes with electricity and natural gas have shutoff protection during the cold winter months and by law cannot have their heat turned off for non-payment from Nov. 1 to May 1.
The move is under consideration because the state's $115 million allotment under the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, could be cut this year to $46.4 million. State officials are hoping that the funding could be boosted to $75 million by Congress, but that is uncertain.
"These are bleak economic times for many of the citizens who qualify for these benefits,'' said Ben Barnes, Malloy's budget director, adding that the administration is trying to avert "cold, homelessness and financial ruin'' for low-income families this winter.
"We cannot spend more than we have for this program or any other program,'' Barnes said.
He noted that some citizens have already started filling out the paperwork for the program at community action agencies.
If necessary, the legislature could decide to allocate state — rather than federal — money for heating assistance when the regular legislative session convenes in early February 2012.
Advocates note that some consumers might have the false impression that the utilities cannot shut off the heat during the winter under any circumstances, but that protection covers only ``hardship'' cases that include elderly and disabled people and households with children under age 6.
Consumers who have no hardships cannot simply refuse to pay their bills when the temperature drops. A millionaire living in a Greenwich mansion or at the top of the mountain in Avon can still be shut off — even during bitterly cold temperatures — if the bills are not paid.
The current plan covers only fuel that can be delivered, including home heating oil, kerosene and propane. A family of four that earns up to $44,000 per year could be eligible for assistance. Many of the recipients already receive benefits from Social Security disability and other programs, and some could receive more than $2,000 in heating assistance for the winter.
At the State Capitol complex Tuesday, during a public hearing that lasted more than three hours and continued into the night, some legislators asked why the state should discriminate based on the heat source and questioned the timing of reducing benefits for families already struggling to stay on their feet financially.
"We've just instituted the greatest tax increase in the history of the state of Connecticut, and we're throwing this on top of that,'' said Sen. Rob Kane, the ranking Senate Republican on the appropriations committee.
Joseph Rosenthal, the principal attorney for the state Office of Consumer Counsel, said the state cannot discriminate based on energy type.
"We have a concern about the legality of the plan that has been proposed,'' Rosenthal said, adding that he did not know the precise penalty that could be levied against the state. "We are not supposed to discriminate against households based on the type of energy used for heating. … That's our view of the law.''
Sen. Toni Harp, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the committee, responded, "I understand your point about the law, but the reality is that people this winter are going to be more in jeopardy than others.''
Last year, the state did not know its actual federal funding level until May, officials said. The highest benefits will go to the lowest-income households under the program, which reviews a household's annual income and liquid assets, such as bank accounts.
Eligibility is based on income, without regard for a family's rent or mortgage. An elderly couple living for free in an in-law apartment could still qualify for the program if their income is low enough. Sen. Len Suzio, a Meriden Republican, said the state needs to distinguish between those who are in dire straits and those who are not.
While both the severity of the weather in the winter and the price of heating oil are both volatile, current projections show that home heating oil could be $3.50 per gallon during the winter.
Unlike states in the South, the Northeast is known for particularly cold winters and for home heating prices that have consistently ranked above the national average.
Rep. Craig Miner, a Litchfield Republican who serves as the ranking House member on the appropriations committee, said legislators cannot forget that the money has to come from somewhere to fund the program.
"Somebody's got to pay for it, whether it's a ratepayer or a stockholder,'' he said.
Rep. Al Adinolfi, a Cheshire Republican, and Suzio both questioned why the funds from the federal earned-income tax credit program and the state earned-income tax program are not counted toward the overall income of a family under the heating program.
"That, to me, becomes double dipping,'' Adinolfi said, adding that the money should go to the most needy families.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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