This month Congress decided not to increase funding for the low income heating assistance program called LIHEAP.
Supporters said the money was needed to make up for dramatically higher energy costs this winter.
The state says it will make up for any shortfall in the program, but that’s likely to require considerably more money than the state has had to spend on LIHEAP in the past.
VPR’s Steve Zind reports:
(Zind) This month Congress removed a proposed doubling of funding LIHEAP from a massive military spending bill. That means the federal government will make available to the states roughly the same amount of money as it has for the past five years.
Tim Searles is Executive Director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.
(Searles) “There will be less fuel assistance benefits for everybody on the fuel assistance program than they had last year, and what they are receiving will buy them considerably less fuel.”
(Zind) Searles says dramatically higher fuel prices mean there won’t be enough money to go around.
But the Douglas Administration wants to make sure the program is still funded adequately, using state money.
(Bertrand) “It certainly will put a strain on state resources, but the Governor is committed and I believe our partners in the state legislature are committed as well to making sure that our LIHEAP recipients are provided the same amount of purchasing power as they had last year.”
(Zind) Mike Bertrand is a special assistant to the Governor. Bertrand says the state is prepared to put up to $10.2 million dollars into the program to make sure those who need fuel assistance receive it. That’s more than ten times the amount of state money needed for LIHEAP last year.
Bertrand says the state is getting the money to fund LIHEAP from a weatherization trust fund, the general fund, and, if necessary, by borrowing money from the Department of Corrections budget.
He says he’s still hopeful Congress will increase LIHEAP funding.
(Bertrand) “We are extremely disappointed that Congress did not recognize the seriousness of this issue prior to adjourning for the holiday break but we are hopeful that when they return in January after hearing from their constituents and certainly the advocates that have fought so strongly for this issue that they will need to provide the states for some additional resources.”
(Zind) Bertrand says he expects a 10% percent increase in the number of Vermonters applying for fuel assistance this year.
Congress scratched the additional LIHEAP money from the budget after Democrats killed an effort to allow drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Bertrand is reluctant to get into the politics of Congress’ decision, but Tim Searles isn’t.
(Searles) “It was an act of pure political spite and disregard for local income Americans. The Republican leadership said, “You’re not going to drill on the North Slope of Alaska – alright, we’re going to take your LIHEAP away’.”
(Zind) Searles says LIHEAP is a federal responsibility and asking the state to pay an increasing amount for the program isn’t a long term solution. He says he’s not convinced the federal government will add more money to the program in time to help people this winter.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.