A heating oil truck delivering fuel in West Hartford in 2023. Bruce Putterman / CT Mirror

As state officials scrambled to find a few million dollars more for core programs in the next budget, $30 million is available from a place some didn’t expect.

Despite warnings of unprecedented demand for heating assistance this winter, Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration never spent the $30 million lawmakers reserved in special session last November to help poor people heat their homes.

But it’s not entirely clear why the funds remained unspent. 

Was it simply because Connecticut enjoyed an usually mild winter, and home heating oil prices steadily declined after early November?

Or did the Lamont administration set maximum benefit levels too low, ensuring only federal funds — and not state money — would be used, even though requests for help were up 24% this winter?

“As a result of this year’s mild winter, a decline in home heating prices, and $23.1 million in additional supplemental federal funding appropriated by Congress after the General Assembly established the reserve fund, the state did not need to tap the $30 million in emergency heating assistance” approved by state legislators, said Chris Collibee, spokesman for Lamont’s budget office.

But few people last fall were expecting the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program to end this winter with unexpended funds.

Despite the name, Connecticut traditionally doesn’t spend state funds for this program, instead using a federal grant awarded through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, commonly known as LIHEAP.

[RELATED: LIHEAP can help CT families cover energy costs. How is it funded and who qualifies?]

But minority Republicans in the legislature, joined by energy assistance advocates, sounded the alarm last fall. They predicted the $94 million in LIHEAP funds originally available for Connecticut in the winter of 2022-23 would be insufficient, and argued that a budget closer to $200 million was needed to meet the demand.

And with state government on pace this fiscal year to record the second-largest surplus in Connecticut history — the windfall currently is projected just shy of $3 billion — advocates said the state could afford to help out.

The Lamont administration initially pushed back with two arguments: The first, that LIHEAP is a federal responsibility and a lame-duck congressional session in December 2022 was expected to approve supplemental funding; the second, that the program is only supposed to help, not cover the full winter heating needs of the poor.

Lamont and his fellow Democrats in the state House and Senate ultimately compromised. The state would commit $30 million to bolster winter heating assistance, but it only would be used after all federal dollars were spent.

A few weeks later, Congress approved more funding for LIHEAP that included $23 million extra for Connecticut.

With all of those federal and state resources on the table, the Lamont administration announced just before Christmas that the maximum heating assistance a Connecticut family could receive had been upgraded by $430, from $1,890 to $2,320.

Republican legislative leaders fired back that the administration had raised benefits far too modestly, ensuring that state funds wouldn’t be used even though demand for assistance had increased.

The GOP noted that the $2,320 per benefit wasn’t even half of the $4,825 peak support the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program offered last winter. But that 2021-22 program was an outlier, augmented 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.

Still, the $2,320 benefit this year also was well below the $2,980 peak relief level granted in the winter of 2020-21 — when home heating oil prices were much lower, according to state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection records.

Between November 1 and March 31 two winters ago, average prices ranged from $1.96 to $2.81. And while they dropped steadily this past winter after an early November peak of $5.93, they only got down to $3.80 by March 27.

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.