A federal funding boost will mean extra money in heating assistance for needy Connecticut families. Elizabeth Hamilton

A key energy assistance program for Connecticut families in need will allow them to apply for an extra $430 in aid this winter, Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration announced Friday.

This boosts the maximum potential aid any household could receive this winter through the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program from $1,890 to $2,320.

The state Department of Social Services unveiled the assistance level Friday as Congress approved extra support for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, commonly known as LIHEAP — the chief source of funding for Connecticut’s energy assistance effort.

Connecticut, which already had a $94 million federal LIHEAP commitment for this winter, now can count on an additional $20 million from Washington. This was authorized through the $1.7 trillion spending plan the U.S. House enacted Friday to fund the federal government through Sept. 30.

“This additional federal support for our energy assistance program and the funding the state has allocated will help provide added heating assistance to households this winter season,” Lamont said Friday. “I urge residents who may need assistance to consider applying for this program to get them through the winter months.”

But that $114 million total allocation is a far cry from what some energy assistance advocates say will be needed to keep many low- and middle-income families from sacrificing food and medicine this winter to keep their homes from freezing. And another $30 million state officials reserved for the program may not be enough either.

During a special session this past November, Lamont and the General Assembly conditionally committed $30 million in state resources — specifically, federal pandemic relief Connecticut hasn’t expended yet — to supplement energy assistance this winter. Those funds won’t be expended until after the $114 million has been exhausted.

Based on the original $94 million federal allocation for energy assistance in Connecticut, state officials crafted a distribution plan in late August that offered a basic benefit of $250 to $600 per household, depending on income and other factors.

Families also might qualify for one to three additional “crisis” payments of $430 each to get through the winter.

But even with Friday’s announcement by the Lamont administration that needy families could seek a fourth, $430 crisis payment — and potentially receive up to $2,320 in total this winter — that remains well below the $2,980 peak relief level granted two years ago.

And it’s not even half of the $4,825 peak support the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program offered last winter. That 2021-22 program was an outlier, though, enhanced with emergency federal pandemic relief to help families adjusting to the expiration of enhanced federal unemployment benefits and tax credits, also ordered during the worst of the coronavirus outbreak.

Also, heating oil prices were much more favorable heading into the past two winters than they are now, according to Department of Energy and Environmental Protection records.

The average retail price entering this week was $4.34 per gallon. That’s 37% higher than the $3.16 recorded one year ago at this time, and 85% more than the $2.34 recorded in late December 2020.

Connecticut’s regional community action agencies, which work with state social service officials to help families secure energy assistance, are grateful for the funding added by Congress, Deb Polun, executive director of The Connecticut Association for Community Action, said Friday.

But Polun added that many families already have used their full energy assistance benefits from Connecticut, “and we still have another 3-4 months of cold weather coming our way. CAFCA and our agencies will work with [state officials] to ensure people are aware of and able to access the additional crisis benefit.”

Nora Duncan, executive director of the Connecticut AARP, called Friday’s actions by Congress and by the Lamont administration “good progress, but the [state] legislature and the governor need to look at this as we go into the regular session,” which starts Jan. 4.

“If all of these dollars have been spent and people are facing crisis, [state officials] need to be ready to act,” Duncan said, noting that families struggling with heating oil costs and inflation already face a steep electric rate hike in January.

Republican state legislators argue that Connecticut’s energy assistance budget should be closer to $200 million to meet all needs and that Lamont and his fellow Democrats in the House and Senate majorities should dip into the state’s huge budget surplus to help more.

The Lamont administration projects the state budget will close June 30 with roughly $2.8 billion left over, a whopping cushion equal to about 13% of the General Fund.

“The work is far from done,” state Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said Friday. “The latest dribble of funding from Washington still leaves Connecticut facing a significant reduction in home heating assistance compared to last year. At a time when more families are in need and home heating oil prices are skyrocketing, we must do more to provide relief, not less.”

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Keith M. PhaneufState Budget Reporter

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.