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Heating Aid Tangled In Politics

As Congress Shifts Back And Forth On Funding, State's Expectations Go Up And Down

December 28, 2005
By DAVID LIGHTMAN, Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- If the low-income energy assistance program had a logo, it would probably be a football.

Few Washington programs are so bounced around by political gamesmanship. Most recently, the Senate stripped half this winter's allocation from the heating aid fund as payback for the defeat of an oil drilling provision; then congressional budget hawks quietly trimmed 1 percent from what was left.

That last change, which should give Connecticut $40.9 million to serve about 85,000 households this winter, was at least the ninth time this year Congress has tinkered with the funding.

"Congressional leaders have been more interested in using the needed increase in [energy] funds as a sweetener for controversial measures ... than in actually passing legislation to help low-income households cope with higher home heating costs," said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington research group.

The program gets bounced around because it's vulnerable in a variety of ways.

"It really is a Northeastern and Midwestern issue," explained U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4th District, and therefore unlikely to draw a lot of support from the rest of the country.

Adding to the program's political troubles is a broader problem: "There's a feeling there are more and more people struggling, but we don't quite understand the situation," said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association.

Lawmakers, under intense pressure to cut government spending, see data showing unemployment down, inflation tame and the economy growing. At the same time, they see higher energy costs and remember how the poor seemed neglected after the Gulf Coast hurricanes.

"There's a real question of how you deal with these problems. How do you judge whether people are struggling?" asked Wolfe.

He saw more and more consumers becoming strapped as the winter continues, but David Keating, executive director of the Club for Growth, a Washington budget research group, had a different view.

Keating asked why people having trouble heating their homes should be treated any differently from the rural poor who may live an hour from the nearest grocery store and need extra money for gasoline.

And, he asked, exactly what are lower income households sacrificing to pay heating bills?

"I'd like to know how many people are doing without the things many of us consider luxuries," Keating said. "It'd be interesting to see what recipients set their thermostats on."

Northeasterners bristle at such talk. Too often, said Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District, critics are "frozen in the ice of their own indifference."

This sort of debate has been almost continuous since Congress created the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program - LIHEAP to insiders - in 1981, as oil prices hit record highs, prices rose at double-digit percentage levels and the economy was in and out of recession. LIHEAP money was distributed according to a formula that gave more to cold-weather states that had more low-income households.

Over the years, LIHEAP has been routinely shoved under the legislative guillotine but always escaped. This year has been different. Not only was there the conflict about how to deal with the poor in a growing economy, but there was the prospect of being able to dangle aid as a political carrot for cold-weather state lawmakers.

Give us programs we want, said the White House and Sun Belt congressional leaders, such as comprehensive energy legislation, cuts in popular social programs and finally, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and low-income people will get more heating aid.

As a result, LIHEAP got kicked all over the congressional playing field, strong one minute, nearly out of play the next, depending on political needs. Its journey:

January: President Bush had authority to release about $298 million last winter for the program, based on need. He released $100 million in December 2004, another $100 million in January and $50 million in March.

Other funds went for other uses, including help for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Some lawmakers from Connecticut, which got an extra $7.9 million, charged Bush was too slow in allowing the funds to be spent. About $20 million was not spent, and is available this winter.

February: Bush asked for $1.8 billion for this winter's regular LIHEAP program, which distributes money to states based on need and weather, and $200 million for a new contingency fund. Connecticut would receive at least $38.9 million.

June: The House approved $2.007 billion for regular funds and no contingency. That was good news for Connecticut, which stood to get about $41 million.

July: The Senate restored the contingency fund, boosting it to $300 million and lowering the regular fund to $1.883 billion. Connecticut was back to expecting about $38.9 million.

August: Congress approved, and the president signed, his long-sought energy legislation. Oil state members hailed the bill; environmentalists said it did not do enough to encourage development of alternative fuel sources.

It included $5.1 billion to be spent on the energy aid - the amount state officials say is needed to fully fund the program - a help in getting the measure approved. Connecticut would get about $99 million this winter.

November: House and Senate negotiators crafted a compromise social services spending bill that contained $2 billion for the program - putting Connecticut back at $38.9 million - and $183 million in contingency money. They soundly rejected efforts to get the entire $5.1 billion.

Dec. 18: A special budget-cutting bill, which desperately needed votes to pass because it contained controversial cuts in domestic programs, included an extra $1 billion for the program as a way of getting cold-weather state members to go along. That money would not be available, though, until next winter.

Dec. 21: The compromise defense spending bill added $2 billion to the low-income fund as a way to get Northeastern senators to vote for a measure that authorized drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - and featured a possible additional $34 million for Connecticut. When a filibuster stymied the bill, GOP leaders stripped out the $2 billion.

Dec. 22: The defense bill passed, and included was a 1 percent across-the-board cut in many programs - including low income energy aid.

So, as the new year begins, the program stands to get a total of $1.98 billion, or slightly less than last year, for the regular program, and $181.2 million for the contingency program. Connecticut will offer a basic benefit of $675 per household, and the state is prepared to use up to $23 million of its own money to make up any federal shortfall.

It may not be needed, because this game never really ends.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., and others vow to seek more money on the next spending bill, probably a special allotment for rebuilding the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, next month. And New England Republican lawmakers say they have private assurances there will be more money soon.

"There's still time to help," Lieberman said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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