Shumlin, Legislature Promise State Money For LIHEAP

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(Host) Governor Peter Shumlin and legislative leaders have promised to use state money to make up for federal cuts in a fuel assistance program.

As VPR’s John Dillon reports, the goal is to make sure that low income Vermonters stay warm this winter.

(Dillon) Shumlin says Vermont’s congressional delegation was successful in restoring some of the pending cuts to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance program, known as LIHEAP.

That’s the good news, he says. The bad news, according to the governor, is that the state will still get about $8 million less than last year.

So Shumlin – along with legislative leaders – says Vermont will use state funds to keep the fuel oil flowing.

(Shumlin) "There is bipartisan consensus that the state of Vermont is too good, too decent and too caring to let any Vermonter freeze in their home this winter."

(Host) Carol Shepard of South Royalton underscored the importance of the program. She uses the money to heat the home where she lives with her 83-year-old aunt.

Shepard says last year she received about $1,200 through LIHEAP.

(Shepard) "Now I got a notice saying my benefit was going to be cut $319. And I sat down and cried because I don’t know how I’m going to stay warm."

(Dillon) Last year, eligible Vermonters received an average benefit of $866. This year, due to federal cuts, the average benefit was expected to be about $750. Shumlin said more money was needed because of federal cuts and because the price of heating fuel has gone up since last winter.

(Shumlin) "So we have agreed that we’re going to make up the difference with the dollars that we have in Vermont to ensure that we keep the amount of gallons that were received available again this year at a similar level."

(Dillon) Caledonia Senator Jane Kitchel chairs the Appropriations Committee. She worked for the state Human Services Agency 30 years ago when LIHEAP was first established. Kitchel says with the current cuts, the federal government appears to be moving away from its historic commitment to help states take care of low income, elderly and disabled people.

(Kitchel) "It is a portent of things to come and I think we are very concerned about all the uncertainty and what those fiscal pressures will be and how we will manage them and make decisions as we move forward."

(Dillon) Most of the state money to shore up LIHEAP will come from a reserve fund the Legislature established last winter to make up for federal cuts.

Shumlin also said the state will look at ways to make LIHEAP more sustainable in an era of dwindling federal support. He’s asked officials to study eligibility requirements, how the state pays fuel dealers, and other possible sources of revenue.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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