State May Spend $23 Million On Fuel Costs If U.S. Funds Don't Meet Low-Income Need
December 17, 2005
By DAVID LIGHTMAN, Washington Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON -- Congress prepared to unleash a fresh icy blast Friday at Connecticut and other cold-weather states as lawmakers balked at providing what state officials say is enough money to help low-income families with mounting energy bills.
Analysts and lawmakers from those states wanted $5.1 billion this winter for the low-income energy assistance program, more than double last year's total. Instead, the program is expected to get about $2 billion, about the same amount as last year, and perhaps $1 billion more later this winter.
"It's horrible," Richard Kogan, senior fellow at Washington's Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said of the funding. "This is a bad deal for low-income people."
He estimated that the combination of unusually cold weather and rising energy prices make the need for help more acute than ever.
The federal Energy Information Administration estimates that home heating oil costs for the average household will rise 21 percent this winter, or $255, while heating a home with natural gas will cost 38 percent more, or an additional $282.
In Connecticut, state spending is expected to make up any shortfall. The state got $47 million from the program last winter and served about 64,000 people. The basic benefit was $475.
This year, the state has made more people eligible for aid and raised the benefit to $675. It expects to receive at least $38.9 million in federal money, has $4.6 million left over from last year, and could receive slightly more under other legislation still pending in Congress.
Connecticut is prepared to supplement the federal money with about $23 million in state funds, and the total should provide enough aid to 85,000 people. Last year, no state money was spent on the program.
If Congress approves the extra $1 billion, Connecticut would probably receive $57.9 million, and if the entire $5.1 billion package is funded - considered highly unlikely - the state would get $98.8 million.
With Christmas and winter very much in the public mind now, adding money for heating aid would seem an easy congressional vote. But low-income energy aid has been dogged by political considerations and controversy for years, and it's a difficult web to untangle.
Among the complications:
Budget cutters: The deficit needs to be cut, this thinking goes, and so everyone has to sacrifice. No one wants low-income people to freeze, but as David Keating, executive director at the Club for Growth, a budget watchdog group, noted, everyone has problems to overcome.
"Rural people have to drive further to buy basic needs; should we give them help paying for gasoline?" he asked. "Grocery prices are probably higher there; do we give some aid for that?"
Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District, countered that energy aid is a matter of life and death. "What is the 85-year-old widow, the single mother with an infant or the family of four whose weekly income just covers the hike in rent and food prices supposed to do for heat?" he asked.
Regional interests: Congress and the White House are largely controlled by Sun Belt politicians, and helping cold-weather states is not high on their agenda.
Efforts this fall to increase the funding kept falling short in the Senate, with the votes largely along regional lines. New Englanders had some success Thursday, when the Senate voted 63-28 to urge the full amount be funded.
But that measure had no weight; it was simply a message of concern.
When the Senate took a vote this fall on actually spending the extra money, it fell seven votes short of the 60 needed for passage.
Old formulas: For reasons that few in Washington understand, once low-income energy spending tops $2 billion, a new formula kicks in that gives more money to warm-weather states.
Connecticut suffers under this formula, as Florida, Texas and Nevada see their money more than doubled, and smaller states - Connecticut is not one of them - get a guaranteed sum. It's highly unlikely the formula will change anytime soon, though slight changes can be made to help New England this winter.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: The extra money would be available nearly immediately if New Englanders would agree to vote for ANWR drilling. Such drilling, the White House estimates, would help raise enough money to pay for the low-income aid.
Forget it, say the New Englanders. The issue is simple, said Larson: "The Republican-led Congress is literally leaving fellow Americans in the cold to fend for themselves."
The end result of all the wrangling is that some states will take care of the poor and some will not, said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association.
States like Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts have a long history of taking care of lower-income families, but many Sun Belt states do not, Wolfe said.
"Connecticut is going to take care of people," said Claudette Beaulieu, deputy commissioner for programs at the Department of Social Services. But, she added, "if you have to find state dollars because the federal government is not living up to its obligations, it may have to come out of something else."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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