Many families could have trouble paying the energy costs to heat their homes this winter, officials said. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Connecticut’s poorest families on emergency heating assistance could get nearly $1,000 less in government aid this winter unless Gov. Ned Lamont and the General Assembly use state dollars to cover a huge cut in federal funding.

A state advisory board — composed largely of consumer advocates and energy industry officials — is asking state leaders to bolster the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program [CEAP], but responses Thursday were mixed.

The maximum benefit for the poorest qualifying household next winter would be $1,350, the state Department of Social Services recently projected

That’s down $970 from the $2,320 maximum benefit provided last winter, when demand for heating assistance shattered the 100,000-household mark after hovering between 73,000 and 92,000 homes over the previous four years.

“The trend is likely to continue to increase,” said Chris Herb, president of the Connecticut Energy Marketers Association and a member of the state’s Low Income Energy Advisory Board. “I don’t believe there’s enough money to satisfy the potential demand.”

The problem, according to state social service officials, is that Connecticut will have only $84.8 million to spend on energy assistance this winter, with most funds coming from Washington through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, commonly known as LIHEAP.

That marks the lowest energy assistance budget since the winter of 2018-19 — the last before the coronavirus pandemic struck in March 2020.

But while roughly 81,500 households received assistance in 2018-19, according to the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, state social service officials say the number of households eligible to apply this winter tops 116,300 — up 43%.

When demand rises and funding drops, benefits tend to plummet.

Further complicating matters, weekly average home heating oil prices — which ranged between $1.73 and $2.99 per gallon during the winter and early spring of 2018-19 — haven’t dipped below $3.13 per gallon this calendar year. And they stood at $3.59 in mid-July, the most recent data reported by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

“We know that people [already] are not getting 100 percent of the energy assistance that they need,” said Deb Polun, executive director of The Connecticut Association for Community Action. The nonprofit regional community action agencies work with state social service officials to register most households that secure energy assistance.

Polun, who is a former chairwoman of the state advisory board, said more than 105,000 households received heating assistance through the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program last year.

Despite its name, CEAP traditionally relies on no state funding but merely is administered by the state Department of Social Services. Federal LIHEAP dollars fund the bulk of the benefits.

But energy assistance advocates say that the economic chaos created by the pandemic and worsened by the 40-year-high in inflation reached in mid-2022 caused demand to skyrocket, and the need has not dropped.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a New Haven Democrat, wrote in a June op-ed that her opposition vote to the federal debt ceiling deal was driven, in part, by its potential impact on LIHEAP.

A DeLauro spokesperson could not be reached for comment Thursday.

State House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said he believes most state legislators aren’t surprised that federal LIHEAP funding for Connecticut — which totaled $117 million in last year’s program — was cut down to pre-pandemic levels, nor do they expect more federal aid is coming any time soon.

“There’s going to be a lot of pressure put on [state] government,” because of the effort to curb federal spending, he said.

Should CT step in and bolster winter heating aid if Congress won’t?

The scenario raises a question Lamont and the General Assembly grappled with last year: If Congress can’t or won’t fund winter heating assistance, should the state supplement that effort?

As heating assistance advocates warned late last summer and fall that demand for help was surging, minority Republicans in the state Senate and House said Connecticut should use its own funds to boost the program budget to $200 million. The state was enjoying another fiscal year with the state budget on pace for a multibillion-dollar surplus — it closed June 30 about $2 billion in the black — and Republicans argued Connecticut could afford to help all those in need to stay warm.

Lamont and his fellow Democrats in the legislature balked at that $200 million number. The administration argued funding the program is a federal responsibility and that the program doesn’t guarantee any specific level of aid.

The legislature and Lamont ultimately committed $30 million in state resources — but on the huge condition they not be spent unless all federal funds first were exhausted.

Advocates were frustrated last June when they learned the state never spent its $30 million. The program closed with $7 million in federal funds left over, and officials reassigned the state money for other programs.

The Lamont administration noted that Connecticut enjoyed an usually mild winter, and home heating oil prices steadily declined after early November. But Republicans charged the Lamont administration set maximum benefit levels too low, ensuring state money would not be tapped — even though requests for help were up more than 20% last winter.

It was unclear Thursday how state officials might resolve things this year.

“We were in a different place last year,” Candelora said.

The current state budget, which went into effect just one month ago, is projected to run $405 million in the black — a comfortable surplus equal to 2% of the General Fund, but hardly a $2 billion windfall.

Most emergency federal pandemic aid also has been committed, Candelora noted, and legislators are expecting to face heavy pressure next year to boost funding for higher education and social services.

Sen. Cathy Osten, a Democrat from Sprague and co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, agreed with the House Republican leader that the competition for dollars will be fierce this winter when the legislature reconvenes.

“I don’t know if we can make any commitments right now,” she said.

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, also echoed those concerns, saying “there’s going to be a really large focus on nonprofit social services” in next year’s state budget debate.

The speaker added that bolstering winter heating assistance is a worthy goal but will be weighed in the context of the full budget.

The Lamont administration didn’t address the question when asked whether it would support using state funds to bolster heating assistance this winter.

Chris Collibee, the governor’s budget spokesman, did note that utility shut-offs are prohibited during winter months, which protects households with electric hearing systems. There also are nonprofits that provide some heating assistance, though the majority in the state comes from the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program.

There are two income eligibility standards for the program.

Households making less than 60% of median state income — $79,110 for a family of four — can participate. 

The income standard is lower — 150% of federal poverty guidelines or $45,000 for a family of four — if that household also participates in certain other state aid, such as food stamps or Temporary Family Assistance.

But at least one legislative leader is advocating for state government to add its funds to federal dollars and bolster winter heating assistance.

“These are people who are seniors on fixed income, disabled people and poor kids,” said Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford. “These people can go cold in the winter? Are you kidding me? It’s a problem. These are human beings.”

The advisory board is asking state officials to bolster federal funding by 20%, which would add $17 million to the program but still leave per-household benefits well below last winter’s levels.

Kelly didn’t propose a number but said Thursday the state could do much better than that, given its projected surplus and $3.3 billion rainy day fund.

Lamont and legislators touted a major state income tax cut this year, which will provide relief of about $210 to working poor families and between $300 and $500 to middle-class households, on average. 

But many vulnerable households effectively could lose all of their tax relief and more unless state officials act to fix heating assistance.

“There’s a substantial part of our state that’s not doing economically well,” Kelly said, adding that refusing to help on grounds that it’s Washington’s responsibility is “a callous, cold-hearted policy.”

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.