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

State officials likely won’t decide until this winter whether to add state dollars to the cash-starved heating assistance program, which is set to slash aid to Connecticut’s poorest families by nearly $1,000 per household.

The fate of the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program also could hinge on whether the state has enough funds to cover pressing needs in health care, social services and higher education.

“You can’t take any of this in a silo,” Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, told the CT Mirror on Tuesday. “You have to look at the whole budget.”

Osten commented one day after her panel and two others — the Human Services and Energy & Technology committees — jointly approved a drastically reduced plan for heating assistance for this winter.

The poorest families will get nearly $1,000 less through the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program under the plan endorsed this week due to a huge cut in federal funding.

[RELATED: Winter heating assistance in CT projected to plummet]

“The real-world ramifications are rather stark,” said Andrea Barton Reeves, commissioner of the state Department of Social Services.

Her agency projected that the maximum benefit for the poorest qualifying household next winter would be $1,350.

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.

Connecticut will have only $84.8 million to spend on energy assistance this winter, with most funds coming from the federal 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% over five years.

Connecticut historically has funded CEAP largely with federal dollars. But the state’s Low Income Energy Advisory Board, composed largely of consumer advocates and energy industry officials, is asking the General Assembly and Gov. Ned Lamont to break tradition and supplement the program with state funds.

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

Leaders from the legislature’s Democratic majority were wary this week of helping.

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, who co-chairs Energy & Technology, said “the need is urgent and acute,” and wouldn’t rule out some state assistance. But late August isn’t the time to make that commitment, he added.

“We don’t do that now,” Steinberg said. “We do that when we have more information. … We don’t try to do it on the fly.”

“It would be great to be able to help poor people, lower income people more,” said Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, the other co-chair of Energy & Technology, who noted state utility regulators already have extended an existing moratorium on utility shut-offs that has assisted many.

“I don’t think this is the right time to be trying to play around with this,” he added. “It goes with the saying, ‘There’s no free lunch here.’”

Some Republican legislators are ready to help, but it’s not clear where the funding would come from.

“Connecticut needs to step in,” said Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, who added he’s asked his staff to begin reviewing funding options. “When they [federal officials] won’t do what’s necessary, then we must.”

Rep. Tammy Nuccio of Tolland, ranking House Republican on the Appropriations Committee, acknowledged there will be many programs next year competing for scarce dollars under the budgetary spending cap.

But Nuccio said she also believes some existing funding could be redirected into enhanced heating assistance benefits.

For example, the CEAP program budget includes nearly $8 million for administrative costs, and the Department of Social Services sends most of that funding to nonprofit, regional community action agencies that help many families register for heating assistance.

Could the department find a way to cover those administrative expenses within its own budget and redirect the $8 million for benefits?

Nuccio noted that the department returned unspent nearly $102 million of its $5 billion budget last fiscal year.

She added that the state saved more than $480 million across all agencies last fiscal year, which could open more possibilities to channel state funds into heating assistance.

But even if that approach isn’t taken, other advocates note Connecticut’s short-term fiscal position is robust. 

The state closed the 2021-22 fiscal year with a record-setting $4.3 billion surplus — equal to roughly one-fifth of the entire General Fund — and came back last year with a $1.9 billion surplus that was the second-largest ever.

Lamont’s budget office is projecting Connecticut will close the current fiscal year with $1.1 billion left over.

But some state officials say it’s not that simple.

Legislators and Lamont have used most of those surpluses to whittle down the state’s massive pension debt, which approached $40 billion entering 2023.

And despite the surpluses, a stringent budgetary spending cap designed in part to assure Connecticut can keep paying down its debt has left many Democrats arguing the state already is short-changing other vital programs, including public colleges and universities, health care for the poor and services for people with disabilities.

Osten noted limited federal aid continues to pose challenges for Connecticut’s Medicaid, school lunch and special education programs.

Reeves wouldn’t rule out the possibility of her department asking for more funding. “I don’t know what that might look like,” she said. “We’re really hoping that our federal partners will understand that it’s really inhumane to have people live in the cold.”

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut’s 3rd District who had been chair of the House Appropriations Committee when her party held the majority in 2020 and 2021, remains a staunch advocate for LIHEAP.

“The ability to adequately heat or cool your home is not just a matter of comfort, it is an issue of public health,” DeLauro said Tuesday, adding that “I will continue to fight for increased investments that lower costs and provide valuable relief to our most vulnerable.”

But with Congress divided — Democrats control the Senate and Republicans the House — state officials say the prospects of more help from Washington are uncertain at best.

“The one thing that’s consistent is the need is urgent and acute, and the feds never give us enough money to get the job done,” Steinberg said.

The General Assembly won’t begin its work on the next state budget until it gets Lamont’s proposal in early February, more than five months from now.

Claire Coleman, the state’s consumer counsel and chairwoman of the Low-Income Energy Advisory Board, acknowledged that heating assistance won’t be the only program seeking more dollars.

“I understand there’s a lot of need in our post-pandemic world,” she said.

But Coleman also noted that energy affordability issues aren’t going away any time soon.

Coleman said that natural gas customers in the state had tens of millions of dollars in arrearages, and electric customer arrearages were in the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to May 2023 data.

“Federal and state leaders need to continue to prioritize funding,” she said.

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.