House GOP boosts federal heating fund

WASHINGTON–House Republicans released a spending proposal Thursday that would provide about $3.4 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program–a significant cut from the current funding level, but probably enough to cover the Connecticut heat aid program approved by three legislative committees this week.

The House GOP plan, which has yet to win committee approval, would provide $3.39 billion for LIHEAP for fiscal year 2012, a $1.3 billion reduction from this year’s appropriation. But that’s $822 million more than President Barack Obama requested from Congress for the program.

In the Senate, the Appropriations Committee has approved a plan that includes $3.6 billion for LIHEAP. Lawmakers still have to reconcile the competing House and Senate versions. And although the final outcome is still far from certain, for now Congress appears to be on track to override the White House’s LIHEAP recommendation and opt for a considerably higher sum.

Mark Wolfe, of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, noted that the House and Senate bills use different formulas to dole out the money to states. Connecticut would do significantly better under the Senate plan, he said, because it favors heating assistance needed in cold-weather states, as opposed to air conditioning needed in the South. There’s also no emergency funding in the House bill, but there is in the Senate version, and the lion’s share of that would likely go to help pay for heating aid.

“But at least we’re going into discussions with a higher number on both sides,” Wolfe said.

That could give Connecticut policymakers, who have been scrambling to ensure that LIHEAP has enough money for the coming winter, a little extra wiggle room.  Earlier this week, state legislators on the Appropriations, Energy and Technology, and Human Services committees endorsed a plan that would provide assistance to everyone who qualifies, even if that meant using state dollars to do so.

Rep. Vickie O. Nardello, a Democrat from Prospect who serves as co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee, said the plan unveiled Thursday by Republicans in Washington would eliminate the need to use state resources to supplement LIHEAP. But she said it was still not sufficient, noting that last year, Connecticut got $115 million in federal funds for the program.

“In terms of the plan we passed, yes that will be fine,” she said of the House GOP’s proposed funding level. But “there will be very many people in Connecticut who will not get energy assistance because the money will run out.”

The state legislature’s plan assumed Connecticut would get $61.6 million in federal funds for LIHEAP. State lawmakers agreed that if federal funding fell below that threshold, they would find state funds to make up the difference.

The legislature’s plan essentially overturned a proposal from the Malloy administration to limit LIHEAP assistance to low-income households that buy fuel from dealers and rely on so-called deliverable fuel. That would have nixed assistance for more than 80,000 low-income households with gas or electric heat.

Connecticut budget analysts estimate that under the Senate plan, the state would get approximately $70 million. Ben Barnes, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget director, said he and others were still reviewing the House plan, but it would likely be in the same ballpark–and thus above the $61.6 million assumed by legislators in their deliberations earlier this week. The Malloy administration had projected that the state would get $46.4 million, based on President Obama’s 2012 budget request to Congress. The White House asked for about $2.5 billion, even though the program is currently funded at almost twice that level–$4.7 billion.

Barnes said the new House plan appeared to be generally good news for Connecticut, although he still expressed concerns about how the cash would flow from Washington to the states. He noted that Connecticut usually asks for 90 percent of its LIHEAP funding in the first quarter, to prepare for New England’s cold winters.

But given the unpredictability of the political process in Washington and the restrictions that come when lawmakers adopt short-term funding bills, as they just did this week, Barnes said it was unclear how much LIHEAP money Connecticut would be able to get in its first installment this year.

“If they were to send us 90 percent of last year’s money [in the first quarter]… that would be fantastic,” Barnes said. But, he added, “I don’t want to get ahead of federal commitments. It’s always a dance but this year, because of the politics in Congress, it’s a more challenging dance.”

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the LIHEAP program, said she would push for more funding.  The GOP bill “reduces LIHEAP by $1.3 billion or 28 percent, even though there will be just as many people needing help this winter as last and some fuel costs are likely to be rising-especially for heating oil,” DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut’s 3rd congressional district, said in a statement Thursday.

The deliberations in Congress over this spending bill are likely to be extremely contentious-not so much because of LIHEAP but because of a range of other federal programs funded through the same measure.  The LIHEAP money is included in a massive spending bill that provides money for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and other related agencies.

The Republican bill released on Thursday includes $153.4 billion in discretionary funding overall–$4 billion less than the current fiscal year and $27.5 billion below the White House’s budget request for these programs. It takes a knife to several Democratic priorities, such as job training and public health programs, although it also boosts programs like Head Start and scientific research.

Perhaps most politically nettlesome are some of the policy provisions in the House GOP bill, which, for example, would defund the health reform law, zero out family planning money, and put new restrictions on the National Labor Relations Board.

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said the measure makes “great strides to rein in bureaucratic red tape and eliminate unnecessary regulatory burdens on businesses and industries that are the backbone of our economy.”

But DeLauro said it was an ideological proposal that would undermine the country’s safety net. “[It] fails to adequately address our nation’s needs in the midst of economic crisis, while bogging down the process with politically driven legislative riders,” she said.

Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for Rogers, said no committee markup has been scheduled for the proposal. That means it’s unlikely to go through regular order and be subject to debate or amendment. “This bill is a reflection of the views of the Committee Republicans,” Hing said.

Her comment signals that House Republicans will simply use the bill as a blueprint in negotiations with the Senate, bypassing House Democrats in the process. Lawmakers only have until Nov. 18 to come to an agreement on funding for all federal spending programs-from labor and health programs to defense and foreign aid. Top negotiators on the House and Senate appropriations committees are hoping to wrap all the individual spending bills into one omnibus package, in which the LIHEAP program would be one small line item.