Agencies predict a larger demand for smaller heating aid fund

While state officials have tentatively planned to compensate for cuts in federal winter heating assistance by scaling back aid levels to qualifying residents, nonprofit agencies warned Friday that the reduced funding will have to be spread even further, to some 20,000 more households than last year.

The 12 nonprofit agencies that process applications for aid through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, commonly known as LIHEAP, now expect about 150,000 households to request assistance, according to Dr. James H. Gatling, president of one of those 12, the Waterbury-based New Opportunities Inc.

“We’re seeing people we have never seen before come through our doors,” Gatling said during an afternoon press conference at the Capitol hosted by state and federal lawmakers.

“We don’t have enough shelters or school buildings to put people in if they can’t heat their homes,” he added. “If we don’t provide for this program, there are people in this state who are going to die this year.

Federally funded, LIHEAP provides states with some discretion to determine eligibility rules. In Connecticut, the program serves households in most cases with incomes at or below 150 percent of the poverty level, though the limit rises to 200 percent for the elderly and disabled.

Connecticut works through private, nonprofit social service agencies to process and approve applications for aid based on criteria set by state legislative panels.

Last year, nonprofits received applications from about 130,000 households, finding about 117,000 to be eligible before funding — about $115 million — ran out.

But given no substantial improvement in a state unemployment rate that remains at 9 percent and demand trends over the past few years, nonprofits now expect about 150,000 requests for LIHEAP grants once applications start being processed in about one month, Gatling said. If about 90 percent of the applicants are found to be eligible, the same rate as last year, that would mean about 135,000 households would be seeking a share of the LIHEAP pie.

As further evidence of increased demand, Gatling noted that an unprecedented number of inquiries, about 15,000, have been made since nonprofits first began to promote the program a few weeks ago.

Three state legislative panels already have endorsed a plan that could leave households with reduced assistance this year.

The General Assembly’s Appropriations, Energy and Technology, and Human Services committees voted on Sept. 27 to provide heating assistance to all households that qualify. But that was based on the assumption that Connecticut would receive only $46.4 million in federal LIHEAP funding this winter — the level recommended by President Obama — and would add up to $15 million in state aid to the at total.

In addition, state lawmakers assumed the $61.4 million total budget would have to serve  last year’s demand plus a 3.6 percent increase, or a total of 122,127 households.

Since the state legislative panels acted, the Republican-controlled U.S. House and Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate have countered with LIHEAP proposals that would increase funding beyond the president’s plan, but still fall shy of last year’s levels.

Social service advocates estimated that the GOP plan would give Connecticut close to $64 million in federal LIHEAP funding, while the Democratic proposal would yield about $76 million.

U.S. Rep. Christopher Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut’s 5th District, joined with key state lawmakers and Gatling at the Capitol in Hartford to pledge to fight to avoid any cut in LIHEAP aid.

The cuts proposed to date “will be the difference between life and death for many of the people we represent,” Murphy said, adding that any reduction in heating assistance “would be as devastating and cruel a cut as would come from the federal government.”

The LIHEAP situation should be resolved by mid-November, when temporary federal budget provisions expire, he said.

Murphy added that it would be “an uphill fight” because there is bipartisan opposition to full funding. “This is not just a Republican-Democrat fight,” he said.

State House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, who is running for Murphy’s seat as the congressman makes a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2012, wouldn’t offer any specifics when pressed whether state government should allocate more for LIHEAP if federal aid ultimately falls short.

“The state has always been there,” Donovan said, noting that “We’re going to run out of money if we don’t get more money for this program.”

While the speaker made it clear he hopes those funds will come from Washington, there are political and fiscal hurdles to allocating more dollars in the state budget.

The $20.14 billion budget the General Assembly and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy set in June falls just $1 million under the constitutional spending cap. The legislature would need to find additional cuts to offset the $15 million in supplemental LIHEAP aid endorsed by three of its committees just to avoid exceeding that cap, and further state spending for heating assistance would exacerbate that problem.

The budget is on pace to finish nearly $79 million in surplus based on early projections, but Malloy and the legislature committed $75 million of any surplus to begin the gradual conversion of state finances to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.

Would Democrats, who control both the state House and Senate, be willing to legally exceed the cap and possibly defer the GAAP conversion effort to pump more state aid into heating assistance?

“I think it would be premature to say there is any consensus on that,” Rep. Vickie O. Nardello, D-Prospect, co-chairwoman of the Energy and Technology Committee, said Friday. “I think there’s a great deal of support for energy assistance. The fair and rational thing is to wait and see how this all plays out in Washington.”