Lois Britton of West Haven is a grandmother who lives on a fixed income. She thinks Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s plan to spend what little federal money the state expects to receive for heating assistance is “ridiculous.”
Members of the legislature’s Appropriations, Energy and Technology, and Human Services Committee may not have used the same word, but they unanimously agreed to change the Malloy administration’s proposal after a five hour public hearing Tuesday.
Britton’s home is heated by gas, which means she would have been one of the nearly 70,000 residents who would not have received assistance under the original plan put forth by the Malloy administration.
Under Malloy’s plan, only about 36,000 low-income residents who use heating oil or propane to heat their homes would have received some of the estimated $46.4 million in federal heating assistance.
At the end of the day, the three legislative committees were more optimistic. The committee’s estimated that the federal government would give the state about $15.22 million more in funding, or the state will be responsible for finding the additional amount in its current budget. If the federal government decides to give the state more money then the committees will reconvene and decide how the money will be spent.
Ben Barnes, Malloy’s budget director, reasoned that households heated by electricity and natural gas are protected by a statutory moratorium on utility shut-offs during winter. However, he said the legislature’s decision to give about $255 to each household under the basic assistance portion of the program was “not unreasonable.” Under the governor’s plan utility heating customers would have received no funding to help pay their bills.
Although Barnes said was less optimistic than the legislature about how much money the federal government would end up giving the state.
“Last year the House was controlled by the Democrats, but this year we have fiscally conservative Republicans in charge,” Barnes said.
He said if the federal government fails to come through with the additional funds then he’s going to have lock people in a room and start talking about making drastic cuts to the current budget.
Rep. Peter Tercyak, co-chairman of the Human Services Committee, said Malloy’s plan in some ways discriminates against urban areas where low income residents are more likely to live in apartment buildings where the main sources of heat are gas or electricity.
“When was the last time you saw oil tanks in an apartment building?” Tercyak said. “This is skewed to homeowners and not renters.”
James Gatling, president and CEO of New Opportunities and head of the Connecticut Community Action Association, said Malloy’s plan would be devastating for his clients.
“The reality is that the energy assistance is not just important, but essential to keeping struggling families safe and housed,” Gatling testified. “The more energy assistance funding is cut and its capacity diminished, the more the state limits families’ spending on other essential items such as food, health care, and housing.”
Lucy Wilson, who is unemployed and cares for her 23-year-old disabled son, lives in an apartment building and didn’t support Malloy’s plan.
“They still report you to the credit bureau,” Wilson said as she waited to tell her story to lawmakers.
“Even if you jack rabbit gas and electric bills, those utility companies don’t want to hear any ifs, ands, or buts,” Wilson said.
She said what happens when the bill arrives in May and you can’t pay it? It costs $49 to $93 to reconnect service then you have to pay a third of the balance due before they consider turning the gas back on, she said.
Lena Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Community Renewal Team, said last year her agency helped distribute heating assistance to 29,000 Hartford area residents. She said if Malloy’s plan was adopted about 77 percent of those residents would not qualify for assistance.
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, said he’s concerned that if Malloy’s plan was adopted people that use gas and electricity for heat will be without heat next winter. He said when it’s May and it’s sunny out they’re not thinking about turning the gas back on, then suddenly they’re out of the system.
“That’s a problem,” Holder-Winfield said. “It would make me feel better if we were thinking about that.”
He said the issue seems to have brought lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle together.
Rep. Toni Walker, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said the committee was listening to ideas from everybody and trying to get everybody some money no matter how they heat their home.
Rep. Vickie Nardello, co-chairwoman of the Energy and Technology Committee, said they recognize by adopting the legislature’s plan to spend $61.6 million is beyond the $46 million the president proposed. However, she said the U.S. Senate plan would send Connecticut $76 million. She said over the past 10 years the president’s proposal was never adopted.
The support to spend $61.6 million was also supported by the Republicans whose constituents benefit from the Contingency Heating Assistance Program.
Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, said he appreciates the committee’s coming together in a bipartisan approach.
“I also am happy this program is fuel blind,“ Kane said. “Unlike the governor’s proposal which picked winners and users.“
Click here to read some of the testimony given to the committees.