Legislature revises heating assistance funds
Published 1:30 pm, Thursday, September 29, 2011
State legislators, gambling the federal government will budget more funds than anticipated, this week moved forward with a revised plan for providing winter heating aid to low-income households.
Late Tuesday, the Appropriations, Energy and Human Services committees unanimously rejected Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's controversial plan for distributing an estimated $46 million in Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program grants.
Connecticut spent more than $115 million last winter and the White House and Congress are threatening to severely slash the LIHEAP program nationally because of federal budget constraints. Malloy decided the best way to prevent residents from freezing was to spend the depleted funds on households that receive oil and propane deliveries because those heated by electric and gas are protected by law from being shut off between November and May.
Critics said this approach was unfair and would leave electric and gas users, particularly in large cities like Bridgeport, with huge springtime bills.
Also, the state Office of Consumer Counsel told Hearst Connecticut Newspapers over the weekend, and testified Tuesday, that Malloy's plan could be illegal because state statutes guarantee a basic LIHEAP benefit for all customers.
The three committees, following a public hearing Tuesday, extended funds to users of electric and gas heat. Members also assumed the federal government will provide the state at least $61 million in LIHEAP aid.
Harp said she and her colleagues arrived at that number after considering three different estimates for Connecticut's share of LIHEAP funds from Washington -- $46 million out of the Obama administration, $40 million from the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and $76 million from the Democratic-majority Senate.
"The governor's proposal was conservative. It looked at the president's number," Harp said. "We at least had the benefit of the Senate committee's number."
There is some reason for optimism. Harp noted that in recent years the federal government has always proposed cutting LIHEAP, but the end result -- often known by mid- to late winter -- is never as drastic as first announced. But if Washington does not come through, Harp said the General Assembly will work with Malloy to find the $15 million elsewhere in the state budget.
The Malloy administration said if the $46 million was distributed among all utility users, the money would run out by late November. Harp said even with $61 million that remains a concern.
"If we do run through it, it's serious enough for the governor to call us back in and think about what we do about that," she said.
Some lower Fairfield County lawmakers held a news conference in Norwalk on Wednesday, urging constituents to contact Washington demanding more LIHEAP funding. The event included state Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, state Rep. Bruce Morris, D-Norwalk, a representative for U.S. Congressman Jim Himes, D-Conn., and senior advocates.
"What we're looking at right now is very, very scary," Duff said. "Our best-case scenario may be a 50 percent cut."
Morris said, "Make the phone calls to Washington. Send letters to the president."
Staff Writer Brian Lockhart can be reached at email@example.com.