Connecticut has the resources to fund heating assistance

Of course, one must be carefully when using numbers and statistics, but the basic facts are these:

Connecticut’s per capita income is about $56,000, while the per capita income in the US is about $33,000;

Luxemburg’s is $38,000, Switzerland’s $37,000; Japan and Norway come in with per capita incomes of about $35,000.

If Connecticut was its own country it would be one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

Yet despite that wealth almost one in ten Connecticut residents lives below the federal poverty level and in some of our urban centers the number of people living in poverty exceeds 30 percent or more. (For a two-parent household with two children, the poverty level was $21,200 in 2008.)

Against this backdrop of wealth and poverty, Connecticut is confronted with a likely cut in federal heat assistance funding that could leave tens of thousands of households unable to pay their bills. The challenge facing Connecticut, yet again, is the point Hubert Humphrey often made when he pointed out that “the moral test of Government is how that Government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

When it comes to this heating assistance issue, the underlying factors are two-fold: Washington vs. the States, and can Connecticut afford to make up the difference with the heating assistance program if it has to?

First, Washington vs. the States:

As a result of the massive cuts that are taking place at the federal level, states will be increasingly forced to deal with the corresponding reduction in vital and essential services. Obama’s proposed cut to heating assistance is cruel and unfathomable but it is a drop in the bucket compared to what will be taking place in the coming years.

While Connecticut media coverage about the impending heating assistance crisis is finally increasing, a recent Connecticut Post editorial revealed that there remains a fundamental lack of appreciation about the dire nature of this problem.

The Connecticut Post Editorial wrote “Gov. Dannel P. Malloy should have a simple answer for anyone who doesn’t like his plan to restructure home heating aid this winter: Talk to the White House.”

The CT Post added “It was President Obama, not Malloy, who recommended a plan that will leave Connecticut with less than $50 million for the coming winter from a federal assistance program after the state spent more than $115 million last year. The shortfall can mean only one thing — people in need will go without.”

Yes, of course calls should be going to Washington. Malloy’s press office put out a press release entitled “GOV. MALLOY JOINS NEW ENGLAND GOVERNORS TO URGE LEVEL-FUNDING FOR HOME HEATING ASSISTANCE.”

But that “solution” leaves the larger issue unresolved.

The federal government is polarized, dysfunctional and broken. To make matters worse, those in Washington will spend the comings months fighting over how to cut trillions more from the federal budget. It would be great if Washington came through with the $5 billion in funding for the Low
 Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), but the immediate question facing Connecticut is what happens if it doesn’t.

Can Connecticut afford to make up the difference in LIHEAP energy assistance funding if necessary?

Governor Malloy’s approach takes the position that Connecticut can’t and won’t make up the difference in funding if that becomes necessary.

The Governor plans to use all of the remaining energy assistance funds to support those who heat with oil, leaving no public support for those who heat with electricity or gas.

Malloy’s plan is try to prevent people who use oil from freezing to death while relying on a state law preventing utility companies from shutting off services during the winter months as the best way to keep the 80,000 low income families who received heating assistance last year from freezing this year.

The problem with Malloy’s strategy is that it will mean tens of thousands will lose their utilities when May 1st rolls around – the date which utility companies can start shutting people off for non-payment.

The Malloy administration’s claim is that there just aren’t available funds to help all of those in need.

But that simply isn’t true.

The two-year budget that Malloy proposed and the Legislature approved during the summer includes a combined surplus of over $550 million dollars and that number assumes no further revenue growth (even
though revenue has been growing in some key categories).

For example, Connecticut’s second gas tax – the gross receipts tax that is charged on the wholesale price of gasoline – continues to bring in more and more revenue as a result of the record gasoline prices.

In addition, the existing projected surplus doesn’t even count the tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions that are hidden in various line items including the account that pays for retiree health benefits.

Just a few weeks ago, the Governor’s Office of Policy and Management reported to the State Comptroller that two state agencies were running at least $15 million over budget but that it wouldn’t affect the bottom line because a new $15 million had been found thanks to activities in the State Treasurer’s Office.

When all is said and done three committees of the Connecticut General Assembly will be required to
approve or reject Malloy’s heating assistance plan next week (September 27, 2011).

Considering the factors outlined above, I believe it will be the most important vote they will be taking this year.

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