As Congress sharpens its knife, advocates urge funding of heat aid

Connecticut lawmakers and social service advocates on Tuesday urged Congress to preserve funding for an energy assistance program that helps more than 113,000 low-income state households heat their homes in the winter.

Such appeals could become commonplace in the coming weeks, as the fallout of a deal to cut $550 billion in federal domestic discretionary spending over the next decade becomes clear. Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said the request for LIHEAP is likely to be the “opening gambit” in a series of pleas to restore federal funds.

Tuesday’s request, made at a press conference at the state Capitol, centered on the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, and the source of anxiety among Connecticut officials predates the debt ceiling debate the led to this week’s deficit-cutting plans. Earlier this year, President Obama has recommended slashing LIHEAP’s funding from $5.1 billion to $2.5 billion.

Under that proposal, Connecticut could get $41 million in LIHEAP funds during the federal fiscal year that begins in October–$57 million less than this year, according to Operation Fuel, which provides emergency energy assistance to people who are not eligible for government programs. Congress has discretion to deviate from the president’s recommendations, and members of Connecticut’s delegation have criticized the LIHEAP cut.

Home heating oil costs are projected to rise by 7.2 percent this winter, to $4.04 a gallon, said Patricia J. Wrice, Operation Fuel’s executive director. In 2010, 113,385 Connecticut households received funding from the program, getting an average of $863.

“This would be a very painful, very painful cut,” Looney said.

Rep. Vickie O. Nardello, D-Prospect, who co-chairs the Energy & Technology Committee, warned that seniors and low-income residents who spend a disproportionate amount of their money on heating costs would have to shift spending from food and transportation to cover a shortfall in energy assistance.

“Connecticut cannot afford to have a 50 percent reduction in LIHEAP,” she said.

LIHEAP helps heat and cool people’s homes, and it also helps the state economy, because the funding goes directly to businesses, said James Gatling, President and CEO of the Waterbury agency New Opportunities and chairman of the Connecticut Association for Community Action. He said a cut to LIHEAP would be unjust, inhumane and unconscionable.

“LIHEAP saves lives and helps Connecticut’s struggling economy,” Gatling said.

Community action agencies like New Opportunities screen some 130,000 people for LIHEAP eligibility, finding more than 110,000 who qualify, Gatling said.

Edith Pollock Karsky, executive director of the community action association, said she is “80 percent” confident that the LIHEAP funding will be restored. She praised the state’s delegation for their support, and said she thinks that once Obama hears the concerns from states he needs for re-election, he won’t allow the “devastating cut” to take place.

LIHEAP funding is included in the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education appropriations bill. Both the House and Senate spending committees have yet to unveil their 2012 Labor-HHS proposals.

The just-passed debt agreement has injected some fresh uncertainty into the fight over funding for a bevy of domestic spending programs, including LIHEAP. That’s because the agreement includes higher spending caps than the House Republican budget, so Labor-HHS could actually be in line for fewer spending cuts than GOP leaders initially indicated.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, said she and others are waiting for new figures to see how much money they will have to work with when they draft their Labor, HHS bill in September. She said Tuesday that LIHEAP “is clearly a priority for me.”

“If I can in any way, I’m going to prevent the cutbacks,” she said when asked about Obama’s proposed cut to LIHEAP.

Still, she noted that domestic programs will be vulnerable. “On LIHEAP and all of the programs which critically affect people’s lives, I will be very, very concerned,” DeLauro said. She noted that when the House GOP parceled out the spending cuts, the Labor-HHS bill took the biggest hit.

House Speaker John Boehner’s debt limit bill is “going to relieve a little bit of pressure, a miniscule amount of pressure,” on the Labor-HHS bill, Rep. Steven C. LaTourette of Ohio, a senior GOP appropriator, recently told Congressional Quarterly.