When he gets back to Washington D.C. Monday U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal says he’s ready for a fight. With temperatures dropping, this week’s battle will be over funding the Low-Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
“This week marks a critical turning point in the battle to save heating assistance funding for 117,000 Connecticut homes at risk of losing it this winter,“ Blumenthal said after an unrelated event at Capital Community College in Hartford. “As temperatures continue to drop this winter, we cannot leave our seniors and most vulnerable citizens out in the cold.”
The U.S. Senate is expected to vote on either a bill to fully fund LIHEAP or a continuing budget resolution which includes funding for the program.
“I am hopeful Congress will recognize we need all of this funding,” he said.
Earlier this year, three legislative committees in Connecticut agreed to spend $61.6 million on the program, even though President Barack Obama budgeted about $46 million for the state.
Rep. Vickie Nardello, D-Prospect, argued Connecticut could increase the amount of spending over what Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget office proposed because over the past 10 years Congress has never adopted the president’s proposal and has always allocated more money for the program.
Malloy’s budget office continues in its monthly letters to the state Comptroller to express concerns about the program and the uncertainty it creates within the state’s budget.
Obama cut the nation’s Low-Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to about $2.57 billion in his budget, but appropriation bills in the U.S. Senate and House have proposed $3.6 billion and 3.4 billion, respectively, for the 2012 fiscal year.
Blumenthal has signed onto the LIHEAP Protection Act, cosponsored by a bipartisan coalition, which would protect funding for the program and maintain it at last year’s appropriations level of $4.7 billion.
The bill was originally introduced by Senators Jack Reed, D-RI, Olympia Snowe, R-ME, and Bernie Sanders, I-VT.
“These dollars are absolutely critical and we need to save them this week,” Blumenthal said Monday.
Blumenthal said the amounts of money being proposed for the program are “so small relative to the whole budget” that it gives him hope there will be bipartisan agreement on the measure.
The state of Connecticut agreed to find money to cover the gap in federal funding, if there is one. And if the federal government gives it more than expected then the three legislative committees will reconvene and figure out how to cover more people with the money it receives.
“We’re about to see a perfect storm. Higher fuel costs, lower incomes, tough economic times, and a gap in funding we need to close,” Blumenthal said.
It is estimated that heating assistance will be increasingly important this year because heating costs are expected to rise an additional $500 per household in New England.
Patricia Wrice, executive director of Operation Fuel, said her organization opened up its doors early this year to start accepting applications and fundraising for what is expected to be increased demand.
Wrice’s organization covers households that don’t meet the threshold for LIHEAP, but have incomes low enough that tough choices between paying for heat and medicine or food are being made on a monthly basis.
She said her organization is hoping to raise $1 million in funds, in addition to the money it gets from the state and what it received from Connecticut Light & Power Co. last month to help provide heating assistance to about 5,400 households.
Wrice knows this year the demand will be greater because many individuals who once gave to the program have been laid off and may need to participate in the program themselves.
She said knowing there are individuals and households that will go without heat this winter is something that keeps her up at night.