U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy announced Friday he would that he would be using a new tactic, a statewide petition, to avoid the “horrors that could result” from a major cut to a federal heating assistance program.
The federal funding level of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program continues to be uncertain this year as the winter months approach.
Last year the program helped 117,000 low income families in Connecticut heat their homes. That number is expected to rise this year but the program will see steep cuts under plans drafted by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
A budget proposal currently before the Republican-controlled House of Representatives would result in an 18 percent reduction to LIHEAP funds in Connecticut, Murphy said.
“A 18 percent cut in the low income heating assistance in Connecticut will be the difference between life and death for many of the people that we represent,” he said at a state Capitol press conference. “This is as devastating and as cruel a cut that could come from the federal government.”
Hoping to convince members of Congress to maintain last year’s funding level, Murphy said he has initiated the petition, asking consumers of LIHEAP to speak out and tell their stories of how the cut would affect them. He said he expected a heavy turnout given the thick stack of responses he received on Friday morning, the first day the surveys were collected.
Murphy read excerpts from a few of the responses including one from an unemployed woman who said “I have a child and it’s hard when there’s no one else to help. Thank God you guys are here.”
Another woman responded that while she had a job, her family only has one source of income and their expenses outweigh their income every month. Murphy said the breadth of the responses demonstrate that keeping homes heated is as foundational obligation of government.
He said he was confident that Congress would ultimately decide to fund the program. Last year the Connecticut delegation fought and won a similar battle to flat-fund LIHEAP, he said. But he acknowledged it will be an uphill battle.
Even the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate turned over a budget proposal that would send Connecticut $76 million for LIHEAP. That’s more than the GOP plan but far below the $115 million the state received last year, Murphy said. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama recommended a plan that would send Connecticut only $46 million, according to Rep. Vickie Nardello, co-chairwoman of the Energy and Technology Committee.
“I think we have an uphill battle given that we have to convince both the Republicans and the Obama administration to bring this money back,” Murphy said.
The uncertainty on the federal level has led to some disagreements between the legislature and the Executive Branch in Connecticut on how the remaining funds should be dolled out.
Working in the context of Obama’s $46 million funding level, the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy recommended a plan, which significantly reduced the number of people eligible for LIHEAP funds. Under the plan only homes heated by gas or propane would qualify for assistance.
However, members of the legislature’s Appropriations, Energy and Technology, and Human Services Committee unanimously agreed to change the administration’s proposal after a five hour public hearing last month. Nardello said they were confident the president’s plan wouldn’t be adopted and opted to make no changes to the program’s eligibility requirements.
Nardello said there were two important reasons to not change the requirement. For one thing, if the state does wind up getting more federal assistance than they planned for, it can increase the benefit rates to everyone, she said.
It was also important not to disqualify some households from the program because a Department of Energy weatherization assistance program is tied to eligibility for LIHEAP, she said.
“We didn’t want to have these individuals suddenly not be able to qualify because they got no benefit from LIHEAP,” she said. “If we gave them nothing they lost their ability to get weatherization.”
But allowing everyone to stay eligible for the program necessitates a significant cut in its benefit rates. Nardello said the payment rate for the maximum benefit bracket will drop from $880 last year to $255 this year. The other brackets will be reduced accordingly, she said.
Regardless of the rate, some eligible folks may never see any money from the program if the funds dry up early.
The legislature planned for somewhere around 122,000 people receiving benefits this winter, a four percent increase from last year, she said. But James Gatling of the Connecticut Association for Community Action Board, an organization of agencies where people sign up for the benefits, said they are expecting 150,000 applications.
“With the economy the way it is, so many people are being laid off from work, we’re seeing people that we have never seen coming through our door,” he said. “So a cut like this would be devastating.”
Gatling said if the state does wind up seeing the 18 percent cut to the program, some of the states low-income residents will likely die as a result.
“If we don’t get these funds it will be a disaster and we will not be prepared,” said House Speaker Chris Donovan.
Gatling said the program is scheduled to begin issuing payments in November. Congress has until Nov. 18, when the current budgetary stop gap measure expires, to reach some sort of agreement, Murphy said. He was hopeful it would not come down to the wire. The program requires full funding but also certainty as soon as possible, he said.
“My hope is that we don’t go back up until the witching hour again. We seem to have a pattern in Washington now where we only legislate in the dead of night when an economic collapse is about to occur,” he said.