Legislators add $15 million to heat assistance plan

Legislators voted Tuesday night to provide federal energy assistance to all households that qualify, effectively rejecting a plan by the Malloy administration that would have made up for a projected shortfall in federal funds by limiting the benefit to households not heated by utilities.

To do so, legislators assumed that the federal commitment to the program will be $15 million more than what the administration expected. If the federal funding is below what the plan counts on, Rep. Vickie O. Nardello said, officials will find money for it in the state budget.

After the vote, Benjamin Barnes, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget director, said he is nervous about the additional federal money coming through, but said he can live with the plan.

“This is a reasonable outcome,” he said. “I’m not unhappy.”

Congress hasn’t yet set the funding level for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, but the Malloy administration projected that the state would get $46.4 million. The number is close to what the state would receive under a recommendation by President Obama that would slash the program’s funding. Last year, the state ran the program with $115 million in federal funds.

To handle the projected cut, the Malloy administration proposed limiting the assistance to households that buy fuel from dealers and rely on so-called deliverable fuel, such as oil, propane, kerosene, coal or wood. That would have eliminated assistance for more than 80,000 low-income households with gas or electric heat. The administration argued that state law protects them from having their utilities shut off for nonpayment between Nov. 1 and May 1, while no such protection exists for deliverable customers.

But after a public hearing Tuesday, legislators on the Appropriations, Energy and Technology, and Human Services committees unanimously endorsed an alternative plan that would provide assistance to everyone who qualifies. It assumes that the state will have $61.6 million to use for the program.

“We are recognizing that in adopting this plan we are going above what the president has recommended,” said Nardello, a Democrat from Prospect who serves as co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee. “We have reason to believe it will be higher than the president’s proposal.”

Barnes said there is reason to be hopeful about additional federal money coming through, although he said he tends to be pessimistic and added that it’s hard to tell what Congress–particularly new Republican members–will do. “I really don’t know what they’re going to do,” he said.

Last year, 117,876 households in the state received money through LIHEAP. The administration’s plan would have provided funds to about 36,826 households. The plan adopted by the committees would provide benefits to 122,127 households. Because the expected program funding is still significantly below last year’s level, the amount of money each household receives will be significantly lower. The benefits vary according to several factors including income, and will range from $10 for some renters whose heat is included in their rent to $1,300 for some deliverable customers.

The vote drew applause from those left in the Legislative Office Building hearing room close to 10 p.m. It followed a public hearing that included heavy criticism of the administration’s proposal.

Critics of the proposal asked that the state distribute the money among all households that qualify. Advocates had hoped that the administration would present an alternative plan Tuesday, but officials did not. Barnes and Department of Social Services Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby said they could not develop a plan that would give meaningful benefits to everyone while providing deliverable fuel customers with enough funding to get through the winter.

Several lawmakers asked about alternative ways to distribute the funds.

Rep. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, questioned the fairness of the administration’s plan, noting that he could have two constituents who are alike except for their heat source, and only one would get energy assistance.

Barnes said that there’s a difference: Utility customers are protected from having their heat shut off, and utility companies can make up any lost payments through other charges. Oil customers and oil vendors don’t have that protection.

Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, suggested that it would make more sense to provide smaller benefits to all households that qualify. Utility customers who can’t pay their bills without help might not be in danger in the winter, he said, “but they’re certainly in debt,” and could lose their utility service in May.

Bremby said the administration’s proposal was aimed at making sure no one loses heat, rather than focusing on financial risk. Barnes said that after making sure that people with deliverable fuels had enough money to get through the winter, utility customers would only be left with $70 to $100–not likely enough to keep people current on their bills. While deliverable customers could be unable to afford heat and face financial ruin, health problems and homelessness if they don’t get enough aid, Barnes said, the plan gives state officials time to address the needs of utility customers.

Others suggested limiting the benefits in other ways. Rep. Al Adinolfi, R-Cheshire, recommended not providing the benefit to people who receive an earned income tax credit next year, and Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, suggested finding other ways to determine who is most needy.

Critics of the proposal raised concerns about a possible consequence of the plan–utility-heated households losing service in May because they couldn’t afford their bills. Gas and electric heat are particularly common in cities, leaving many urban residents at risk of losing energy assistance.

Deb Polun, legislative director for the Connecticut Commission on Aging, noted that Tropical Storm Irene showed the effect of being without electricity for days at a time, and pointed out that in that case, temperatures were not a factor.

Polun is a member of the board that oversees LIHEAP, which recommended that the state provide benefits to all qualifying households, regardless of heat source.

She also suggested that the legislature consider reducing the minimum number of gallons required for a heating oil delivery from 100 to 50. And she recommended that the state establish a rapid response team to address problems that occur, including making sure people are offered shelters or other alternate housing.

Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, said he was concerned that the administration had not offered a plan for utility customers facing shut off in May. Some could go through the rest of the year without getting their utilities turned on. By next winter, they could be left without heat, he said.

“I don’t know what happens to these families that we’re excluding here,” he said.

Barnes said the administration hasn’t given a firm answer to what it would do if additional federal funds don’t become available. “Frankly, they’re not good choices,” he said, noting that the state budget is tight and the state is currently only about $1 million below the spending cap.

Appropriations Committee co-chair Sen. Toni N. Harp, D-New Haven, said that since the dates during which utilities cannot shut off service are set by statute, the legislature could change them. Although he did not endorse them, Barnes said there were several similar options, including restricting shut-offs after May 1 or changing the ability of utilities to recapture bad debts.

Several people who received heating assistance in the past attended the hearing, which began nearly 90 minutes late.

Candace Donnelly and Carlos Morales of Manchester brought their 6-year-old and 5-month-old, hoping the program would stay as it was. They have electric heat and have received LIHEAP to help pay their bills.

“I work, but I don’t make that much, so every little program that they have helps,” said Donnelly, who has a job at McDonalds.

If she doesn’t get assistance this year, she said, she would “try to work something out with the light company, see if they can help.”

The leaders of several community action agencies, which handle applications for the program and would see their funding cut in half under the administration’s plan, also attended the hearing. James Gatling, president and CEO of New Opportunities, Inc., and chairman of the board of the Connecticut Association for Community Action, praised the intent of the administration’s plan, but said it did not fairly address the needs in Connecticut and would have “serious unintended consequences, possibly including the loss of life.”

When asked whether the plan would be devastating to the people his agency serves, Gatling said it would.

The association wanted the legislators to prepare to use state funds it necessary to make up for the shortfall in federal funds.

If federal funding is below what the plan counts on, legislators will meet again to address the shortfall, Harp said. Asked about what happens if the federal money doesn’t come through, Barnes said, “We start making cuts that everybody hates.”

In Washington, the funding picture for LIHEAP remains murky. President Obama has recommended slashing LIHEAP funding, while House Republicans have not yet set a top-line funding figure for the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education appropriations bill, which sets spending for the LIHEAP program.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the top Democratic on the Labor, HHS appropriations subcommittee, said Republicans suddenly nixed a scheduled committee debate on that funding bill a few weeks ago. That’s a sign, she said, that GOP leaders still don’t have an agreement on how much federal money they will channel into those key domestic programs.

“The speculation is they can’t get their folks to vote for it–that people wanted deeper cuts,” said DeLauro, D-3rd District.

A spokeswoman for House Appropriations Committee said the subcommittee mark-up of that bill hasn’t been rescheduled yet, and it was too early to speculate about how LIHEAP might fare.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said the potential outcome is concerning.

“We’re going to have to have the balmiest winter in history to live within that budget,” he said.

Deirdre Shesgreen contributed to this story.