Vermont will get $2.5 million for fuel assistance

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(Host intro) There’s some good news for Vermonters who are depending on fuel assistance from the federal government.

The state will receive roughly $2.5 million that was left over in the program. And Vermont’s congressional delegation is working to authorize an additional $20 million.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) The pressure on the state’s low income home energy assistance program, known as LIHEAP, is growing larger every day.

Applications are up more than 25% because fuel prices are dramatically higher than they were a year ago. However, federal funds for the program have not kept pace with this growing demand.

Vermont’s congressional delegation wants to double the national budget for LIHEAP – from $2.5 billion to $5 billion. Vermont would receive $20 million under this plan.

That debate is likely to unfold in the coming weeks. In the meantime, President Bush has just authorized the release of special contingency funds and Vermont will receive about $2.5 million under this appropriation.

Senator Patrick Leahy sponsored the amendment to free up this money.

(Leahy) “They had money just sitting in the vault, some left over from last year. And my amendment in the Appropriations committee said, `You’ve got to start spending it. We can’t wait until people are literally freezing to death.’"

(Kinzel) Leahy says it’s also critical to expand the eligibility requirements for LIHEAP.  Currently the top threshold is 125% of the federal poverty level. That’s roughly an after-tax income of $26,500 for a family of four.

Leahy says too many individuals and families above this level are facing a decision "to heat or eat."

(Leahy) “The number of people who stop me and tell me the problems they face. These are real problems. These are not people that complain for the sake of complaining. A number of the people I’ve known for years, they are very stoic, very self sufficient. But they say, `We’ve been hit with all of these things, everything happening at once on these costs, and we’re terrified we don’t know what’s going to happen.’"

(Kinzel) Senator Bernie Sanders says a proposed comprehensive energy bill could be the vehicle for the additional LIHEAP funds. But he says the delegation is also looking at many other options.

(Sanders) “So we are looking at every possible avenue that we can, not only an energy bill –  which, by the way may or may not be passed in the next 3 weeks. There’s no guarantee that any energy bill will be passed. The majority leader, Harry Reid, was on the floor just today talking about LIHEAP. That’s good news. He indicates that in one form or another he’s going to try to work with us to get that bill moving."

(Kinzel) Sanders says the best option may be a continuing budget measure that Congress will have to consider before it takes a recess for the November elections.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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