Advocates aim to increase heating assistance eligibility guidelines

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(Host) Congress has approved doubling the amount of money it will spend to help people heat their homes this winter.

But community action agencies across Vermont say that still won’t cover all of the needs that the state is likely to see.

VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports.

(Sneyd) Advocates say an infusion of federal money is welcome.

Under a bill approved by Congress late last week, Vermont’s share of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program would rise from $17 million to $35 million.

Hal Cohen directs the Central Vermont Community Action Council.

(Cohen) "That is tremendous, fantastic news. What that’s going to do is for particularly the lowest income people in our state, it’s going to get them about 60 percent of their fuel costs covered. The problem is that they still have to come up with the 40 percent.”

(Sneyd) Under Vermont guidelines, a couple earning less than $17,500 can qualify for that state assistance to help keep their home warm.

Advocates say there’s still a problem. There are a lot of people who earn just a little more than the guidelines. So they don’t get any help, unless there’s an emergency.

Tim Searles of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity says that needs to change.

(Searles) "I think Vermont needs to look very seriously at expanding eligibility for LIHEAP energy assistance and at expanding the available resources with an in-state source of assistance. A fully funded LIHEAP program still is inadequate to meet people’s needs.”

(Sneyd) Searles says he wants state policymakers to consider boosting income guidelines. He says the state could expand assistance to couples earning as much as $21,000. That would comply with federal rules.

He acknowledges that if his proposal were adopted, benefits for everyone in the program would have to decline to accommodate the expansion.

That’s where state money would come in. Searles says the state could divert money into the program to expand it further.

He says there’s a precedent for his idea.

(Searles) "I just think back to the early 1990s when we decided we needed more funding for weatherization and enacted a gross receipts tax on energy of a half cent on the dollar. As a result of that we have the best weatherization program in the country.”

(Sneyd) The Douglas administration typically frowns on proposals to raise a tax and this idea is no different.

But the administration says it’s willing to consider expanding eligibility if money can be found in the state budget.

The Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee is scheduled to meet this week – and home heating assistance is on the agenda.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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