A fuel truck parked at Tuxis Ohr’s Fuel in Meriden Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

A joint panel of Connecticut legislators approved a plan Monday to allocate a shrinking pot of federal funding to assist low income residents with heating their homes, rejecting a last-minute Republican proposal to supplement the program with additional funding.

The Appropriations, Energy & Technology, and Human Services Committees approved a plan from Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration to administer the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program following a five-hour remote proceeding. 

The plan represents a significant decline in the expected benefits dolled out under the program, which has experienced a 5% increase in participation in the last year paired with the possible expiration of a pandemic-era boost in federal support, decreasing the initiative’s total funding from about $140 million in Fiscal Year ‘22 to $79 million in Fiscal Year ‘23.

“There is a modest decrease in the benefit levels based on the return to baseline funding and the projected increase in enrollment,” Social Services Commissioner Diedre Gifford told the panel of lawmakers. 

Gifford compared the proposed benefit levels to Fiscal Year ‘19, prior to the supplemented funding. At that time, a vulnerable household at 100% of the federal poverty level would receive a basic benefit payment of $725. Under next year’s plan, which makes direct comparisons difficult by combining five income brackets into three, the most vulnerable households at 125% of the poverty level will receive a basic benefit of $600.

Republicans, who have made affordability in Connecticut a campaign theme this year, urged Democrats to utilize roughly $112 million from an account containing federal funding already in state coffers to restore the program to the levels seen over the last two years and expand assistance to more residents.

Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, R-Newtown, said the issue bordered on a “humanitarian crisis.” 

“We’re going to be providing reduced benefits and on top of it, because of the facilitation of being able to get more people into the program, individual family assistance will be appropriately diminished by having a smaller piece … of a smaller pie,” Bolinksy said.

The Republican amendment failed after an attorney with the nonpartisan Legislative Commissioners’ Office concluded it to be outside the scope of Monday’s meeting and the committees upheld rulings affirming that decision.

Despite the LCO opinion, Republicans expressed outrage at the ruling, questioning how the panel was able to successfully adopt a change proposed by the Social Services Department, which expanded the program by allowing eligible families to receive two emergency payments instead of one, but not their amendment to redirect funds from a separate, federally funded account.

“I’m not discouraged by what we’ve just seen take place, I am disgusted,” Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, said. “I have had seniors call me in tears, wondering how they are going to … heat their homes.”

Democrats accused Republicans of politicizing the issue. Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said the law required that using the funds proposed by the Republicans would have taken an act of the full legislature — not the joint committee which met Monday.

“The legislature operated the way it should have by voting that down. In my heart, it’s the thing I would love to do but I have a job that is dictated … by the statutes that exist,” Winfield said. “If we don’t like the statute, we change the statutes, but to call into question whether people care about the people of this state because they actually did their job is wrong.”

Energy Committee co-chairman Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, attributed the rhetoric to the coming election.

“I have, on this committee, never heard politicking like this and I guess it’s because it’s 60 days out from an election…. That said, our job is to do what the law says,” Needleman said. “We’re going to vote on the amended plan and follow the law.”

Democrats argued that the LIHEAP initiative was just one of several state programs aimed at reducing the financial burden of low income families and that the state benefits paid under the program could be amended if Congress were to approve a $175 million increase in funding proposed by the Biden administration.

“When you get additional dollars in any budget, that is always subject to being taken back, but we’re not sure that it’s being taken back because the federal government has not voted on that,” Appropriations Committee co-chair Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, said. “We have –starting in January when we start the next year — we have the opportunity … for us to come and address it budgetarily.”

At a related press conference on Monday, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who will face Republican National Committee member Leora Levy in a re-election bid in November, said he supported restoring federal funding to the program to pandemic levels but declined to say whether he believed state officials should subsidize the program in lieu of that funding.

“I’m here to make sure the federal government does the right thing,” Blumenthal said.

He said he would leave the state’s use of federal money up to the state.

Christine Stuart contributed to this report.