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

A joint committee of Connecticut legislators approved a plan Monday to provide about 31% less assistance to low-income families struggling to heat their homes this winter as supplemental federal funding continues to dry up. 

The Appropriations, Energy & Technology, and Human Services Committees voted in favor of a plan from Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration to administer the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program after a joint afternoon meeting and public hearing. 

The plan finds the federal LIHEAP block grant at around $75 million — roughly on par with last year’s base grant. Limited additional funding will push the total support up to around $84.8 million. 

However, additional funding has significantly boosted the program in recent years. Between emergency supplemental funds, disaster relief and other adjustments, last year’s total funding amounted to around $122.4 million. Meanwhile, ARPA funding helped push the fiscal year 2022 total to more than $140 million and the FY 21 total to around $117.5 million. 

“In ‘24, all of those dollars have gone away,” Social Services Commissioner Andrea Barton Reeves told the joint panel of legislators. “We are now back to the pre-pandemic dollars.” 

Those pre-pandemic funding levels mean reductions in benefits for the state’s poorest families. Last year, the most vulnerable residents received a basic benefit of $600 and up to three crisis assistance benefits of $430. This year, the basic benefit will be reduced to $530 and families will be eligible for just two crisis benefits of $410. 

“The real world ramifications are rather stark and that’s what we are most concerned about,” Barton Reeves said, adding the two rounds of relief may be adequate in the event of a mild winter. 

“If in fact it turns out to be a much colder winter, then we would come back and ask for some opportunity to access more funding,” she said. “I don’t know what that might look like. We’re really hoping that our federal partners will understand that it’s really inhumane to have people live in the cold and with that, they would hopefully set any kind of partisanship or politics aside and make sure people stay warm.” 

The ongoing loss of supplemental federal funding comes as expected caseload levels climb. This winter, the agency anticipates that its caseload will be about 10% higher than last year, leading to a reduction of about $70 in its basic benefit category. 

Deputy Commissioner Peter Hadler called the disparity a “big challenge” for the agency. 

“Our benefit matrix and our services do have to return to this level because this is our level of federal funding,” Hadler said. “If there is additional federal funding that comes in, we will be certain to provide that to clients as we have done for the past few years.” 

That is exactly what happened last year, when the joint legislative panel approved around $79 million in LIHEAP funding, only to have the federal government later supply additional funds. During a special session last year, state lawmakers also diverted residual ARPA funding to bolster the program, though DSS officials said Monday those additional funds were not used. 

Several lawmakers voiced concerns about the impact of the benefit reductions. Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, said the return to pre-pandemic funding levels coincided with a caseload increase of more than 36,000 households since before the pandemic.

“We live in Connecticut. Even if it’s a mild winter, we are heading for a disaster,” Anwar said. “It is quite clear we will not be able to take care of our citizens who are in need.” 

Those concerns came from both sides of the aisle. Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, said the problem did not seem to be resolving.

“I think it’s important to say that we see a tremendous increase in the number of households that need this assistance and I think it’s incumbent on us to find that answer going forward,” she said, “because I don’t see it diminishing.”

State lawmakers are somewhat constrained in funding the program, which has traditionally been supported by federal dollars. Sen. Cathy Osten, a Sprague Democrat who co-chairs the Appropriations Committee, said LIHEAP was one of several state-run programs returning to its pre-pandemic funding levels. 

“We would have to make a policy decision on whether or not we want to take on all of the federal dollars in all of the programs that are returning to pre-pandemic levels,” Osten said. 

Others seemed resigned to operating the program within the limits of its traditional funding during Monday’s meeting. Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, said the state could not afford to keep spending at the supplemented level. “There’s no free lunch here,” he said.  

“It would be great to be able to help lower income people more,” Needleman said. “However, we received one-time money, we managed to stretch that over three years. Generally speaking, fuel prices have stabilized. I don’t think this is the right time to be trying to play around with this.”