Lori Savage’s family was among those that relied on help from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to pay the bills and keep the heat on during the long months of last winter. But those funds may be cut in half next year under the proposed federal budget.

“There was a point where I didn’t think I was going to be able to pay my gas or electric bill,” Savage, a single-mother from New Haven, recalled. “To fathom being without your gas or electricity and you have a child in the home, it’s scary.”

Federal funding for the program that her and more than 113,000 other households in the state have come to rely on could drop from $5.1 billion to $2.57 billion under President Barack Obama’s proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year. The decrease in funding is a response to the end of a spike in energy costs that began in 2009, according to the proposed budget documents.

During a Capitol press conference Tuesday, lawmakers, representatives of Operational Fuel and the Connecticut Association for Community Action (CAFCA) urged Congress and the President to reconsider the cuts to a program they see as vital for low-income families in the state.  They appealed to the public to reach out to their members of Congress and demand the funds be preserved.

“This would be a very painful cut and a reduction in a significant federal program that has extraordinary benefits to low and moderate income people throughout the country,” said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, who added many of the families do not have the resources to address the impact. 

Connecticut received $98 million from the program last year, which they distributed at an average of $863 per household to over 100,000 households in need, according to Looney.

Under the proposed cuts in the LIHEAP program, the state’s funds would decrease to $41 million, which would force Operation Fuel and other groups who help distribute funds to adjust standards and potentially help fewer households, Looney said.

A projected 7.2 percent increase in fuel prices this winter could make the problem worse for struggling households, according to the Energy Information Association.

Despite funds being at their highest last year only 113,385 of the nearly 460,000 eligible households received any assistance.

“Connecticut cannot afford to have a 50 percent reduction in LIHEAP,” said Rep. Vickie Nardello, D-Prospect, who serves as the chair of Energy and Technology Committee. “More than any other program that I am spoken to by constituents, this program is always the one I get the most calls on because what you need to understand is this is a disproportionate amount of vulnerable peoples incomes.”

The problem is not limited to the households in the state, if approved more than 3.3 million households nationwide would no longer receive funds.

Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, agreed that people rely on the funds but said that cuts in the budget are necessary.

“We’ve got a system that has led people to expect this help and be dependent on this help, and you just can’t pull the plug on that,” said Markley. “Obviously money has to be saved, the problem when you don’t deal with things on an ongoing basis is suddenly you hit a crisis like this and something’s done that is radical.”

Cuts to LIHEAP funds impact businesses as well.

CAFCA Chair James Gatling said some funds go directly to small and large businesses throughout the state to provide fuel and electricity, which he said helps boost our struggling economy.

While LIHEAP cuts are not part of the significant cuts included in federal debt deal signed by Obama on Tuesday, Looney warned more drastic cut could happen s as “the fallout” of the debt deal becomes apparent in the future.

“I think this may be the opening gambit of a discussion we’re going to be having soon in a variety of other contexts,” he said.

Asked whether it surprised him that the reduction in funding to the program was coming from a Democratic president, Looney answered frankly, “It certainly does.”