(Updated 3:21 p.m.) As winter approaches state legislative leaders have been scrambling to close a $33 to $38 million hole in a federally funded heating assistance program for low-income families. But they’ve been unable to reach any sort of agreement with outgoing, Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
Lawmakers and Rell have been exchanging letters and trying to find a way to transfer state funds to the federally funded Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) for the past week, but have been unable to reach any conclusion.
Rell chided the legislature’s Democrat-controlled Appropriations Committee last week for failing to adopt lower benefit levels in September when it approved the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program block grant by a 25 to 2 vote. The lower benefit levels Rell suggested would have meant about 18,000 fewer families could participate in the program, according to the Office of Fiscal Analysis.
“Clearly, having families go without heat for the winter is not acceptable,” Rep. John Geragosian and Sen. Toni Harp, wrote Tuesday in a response to Rell’s Nov. 17 letter regarding the $33 to $38 million shortfall. The legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis and the governor’s Office of Policy and Management disagree over the size of the deficit in the LIHEAP account, which is calculated currently on how much is being obligated and not how much has actually been being spent.
Geragosian and Harp suggested transferring funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to the Emergency Assistance or Community Services accounts, continuing the program with periodic evaluations, closer coordination with the Community Action Agencies that administer the funds and accept the applications, and reducing spending amongst state agencies.
“As you know, the problem we face is not cash flow; the Department of Social Services reports actual spending on only $1,204,854 (out of a total fund of $72,000,000) as of November 15,” Geragosian and Harp wrote. “For this reason and others, it would be premature to reduce or deny benefits to families at this time.”
Rell’s Nov. 17 letter said that the program may run out of money as early as the end of this month, but the Department of Social Services spokesman said last week that “We have not at this point put a deadline on applications.”
Rell thanked Geragosian and Harp for their letter, but said Wednesday that it contained “no serious spending cuts.”
“Make no mistake, that is what we must do and what our taxpayers require of us in order to pay for fuel assistance at these higher, mandated levels,” Rell wrote.
In an effort to get the conversation started perhaps, Rell said she is offering $38 million in spending cuts. “Many of these dollars have not yet been spent, some represent a partial reduction in funding for programs that can still operate well at lower levels, others eliminate carry-forwards from FY 2010 and some require statute chances,” Rell wrote.
While setting aside the issue that the legislature may need to convene a special session to transfer the money to the heating program, Rell suggested what amounted to two pages of spending cuts. They included canceling the expansion of Shoreline East rail service, reducing municipal grant programs, eliminating a program for homeless youth which has yet to even get off the ground, suspending mileage reimbursement for judges, and several other cuts.
Geragosian said Wednesday afternoon that he hasn’t had time to go over the cuts Rell proposed, but he continues to hold out hope that “we can all sit down and say we don’t want people to lose their heating assistance.“
The questions he’s still looking for answers to include: When will the program run out of money? Does the legislature need to take action? And can they run a deficiency in that program?
Rell’s budget office said last week that it doesn’t believe the Department of Social Services can run a deficiency and it’s “questionable” whether the state would be able to transfer funds to the federal program.
The letters from Rell and the Appropriations Committee co-chairs don’t address the possibility that the state legislature would need to convene a special session in order to transfer the funds to the program. Legislative leaders have maintained a special session isn’t necessary, but Rell’s budget office disagrees.
Rell’s spokesman said Wednesday that the governor would gladly hold a special session if legislators would be willing to work with her on these cuts. Some lawmakers believe Rell has the authority to plug the hole on her own without legislative action.