Delegation wants to double home heating assistance

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(Host) Heating oil could cost $5 a gallon this year and it seems as though everyone is worried about how they’ll keep their homes warm this winter.

Members of Vermont’s congressional delegation say they’re hoping to double the low-income heating assistance money.

VPR’s Ross Sneyd has more.

(Sneyd) Everywhere they go, Peter Welch, Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders hear Vermonters’ fears for the coming winter.

Congressman Welch:

(Welch) "I’ve never seen Vermonters so anxious. Last year people talked to me about the war. This year it’s a little bit about gas prices. But it’s about how are they going to heat their homes … They don’t know how they’re going to manage home heating fuel that’s like $5 a gallon.”

(Sneyd) Senator Sanders says one way to help is to pour more money into the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, which helps the poor and elderly heat their homes.

(Sanders) "So what we are doing here is literally a life and death issue. In Vermont and in other states people will freeze if we do not substantially increase LIHEAP funding and that’s something that we absolutely have to do.”

(Sneyd) Sanders’ plan is for doubling LIHEAP assistance. If he’s successful, Vermont could count on an infusion of an extra $20 million or so next winter.

But the question is how much that will help. Tim Searles of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity says the extra money will help those who qualify for LIHEAP keep pace.

But he says there will be a lot more people whose incomes are just a little too high to get any assistance.

(Searles) "Unless we have significantly more resources than we’ve had in the past, we’re going to be saying, `Find a shelter.’ And that’s not a practical way to deal with this crisis. But this is unprecedented. This beats anything back in the ‘70s as far as spikes in prices and non-affordability. It’s off the charts.”

(Sneyd) Sean Cota, who is president of a family oil dealership in Bellows Falls, says dealers are worried about signing pre-buy agreements with customers because prices have been so volatile.

(Cota) "This is an energy bubble that’s driven by speculation. At some point this thing’s going to burst. When it bursts, it’s going to come down by half. Is that going to happen next spring? Or is it going to happen at the election? Who knows.”

(Sneyd) Senator Leahy blames today’s high prices on the Bush administration. He says the president hasn’t had an energy policy and he’s made it worse by paying for the Iraq war with borrowed money.

(Leahy) "By putting the Iraq war on a credit card, it dropped the value of the dollar so much that the dollar is worth half of what it was when you go to buy oil. … That alone doubles the price of oil.”

(Sneyd) Leahy says the Senate will begin to deal with the problem soon after it returns to Washington this week. He predicts the LIHEAP funding increase will pass by a veto-proof margin.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.


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