oil truck
A heating oil truck that delivers biodiesel Credit: Christine Stuart photo

A federal heating assistance program appeared likely to get a funding boost from Congress this week after it was included in a stopgap budget bill, potentially providing more support for low-income Connecticut households during the coming winter. 

Funding for the state’s Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program dropped to roughly $79 million this year after having been supplemented to $140 million last year by pandemic-related funding. 

Although a group of legislative committees approved a plan by Gov. Ned Lamont to administer the shrinking pot of federal dollars, the reductions touched off attempts to supplement the funds both through congressional and state actions. 

The congressional efforts may have produced some results. A continuing resolution to fund the federal government through mid-December now includes $1 billion in extra LIHEAP funding. Lawmakers are expected to vote on the legislation this week. If passed, the bill would boost support for Connecticut’s energy assistance program by roughly $20 million, according to a spokesperson for the governor. 

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, one of three members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation who advocated last month for an increase in the funding, said the program needed to be funded at “the highest possible level as we head into the winter.”

“Strengthening LIHEAP is the best and most direct way to provide people with support to lower their home energy costs, and under new guidelines there are more households than ever that now qualify for the assistance,” Courtney said in a press release. “Glad to see that our effort to strengthen LIHEAP has been successful so far—we’re going to keep working in bipartisan fashion until it becomes final.”

The program has also been at the center of a debate among state policymakers. Legislative Republicans have sought to force a special legislative session in order to adopt a proposal to supplement the fund by nearly $120 million of federal funding already allocated to the state. 

The governor has called those efforts “premature” as he expected the federal government would increase the funding if it became necessary. On Monday, Lamont was one of a bipartisan group of six New England governors to write to congressional appropriations leaders in an effort to secure more funding.  

Lamont’s spokesperson Anthony Anthony said the additional $20 million would help Connecticut families. 

“The Governor is grateful for the work of the CT congressional delegation to do just that and secure an additional $1billion for LIHEAP to better support working families struggling to pay their energy bills,” Anthony said. “The near $20 million in extra LIHEAP funds that Connecticut will receive for home energy assistance from Congress will go to good use and supplements the governor’s state budget that included historic tax cuts for working people and middle-class families.”

However, Republicans said the additional federal money may barely put a dent in the problem presented by a potentially severe winter amid high energy and fuel costs as well as other cost increases driven by inflation. 

“It still falls short of the projected need,” House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said. “So while $20 million is appreciated, we are probably closer to needing $60 million and in our proposal, we believe it should be $120 million.” 

In August, the state estimated that some 96,000 households would participate this year in the program, which began accepting applications on Sept. 1. To be eligible, a family must make at or below 60% of Connecticut’s median income. That amounts to $76,465 for a family of four or $39,761 for a one-person household. 

Residents looking to participate in the program can enroll either online, by phone or by mailing an application to one of several community action agencies.