President Joe Biden has proposed $1.6 billion in supplemental funds for winter heating assistance that could significantly enhance resources for poor Connecticut families, compared to original expectations.
But even if Congress enacts the president’s proposal, Connecticut’s neediest still would be getting hundreds of dollars less per household — unless Gov. Ned Lamont and state legislators reverse themselves and supplement the program with state money.
The chairwoman of the Connecticut Low-Income Energy Advisory Board said Thursday that state officials still need to consider breaking with tradition and pooling state resources with federal funds to help keep households warm this winter.
“I hope that the state can be nimble and, once all of these moving parts are ironed out, have the ability to address whatever gap there is in need,” said Claire Coleman, also the state’s consumer counsel.
That need appeared to be huge back in August when the state Department of Social Services released its projections for the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program.
Though overseen by the state agency with the aid of regional, nonprofit community action agencies, the energy assistance program chiefly distributes federal funds, specifically grants from the Low Income Household Energy Assistance Program, commonly known as LIHEAP.
State social service officials projected two months ago that the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program budget for this coming winter would have access to $84.8 million. That included: $77.4 million in LIHEAP funds Washington, $7 million carried forward from last winter’s program; and about $400,000 in miscellaneous funds.
Based on that budget, social services officials estimated, the maximum benefit that the poorest qualifying households could receive this winter would be $1,350. That’s $970 less than the top per-household benefit provided last winter.
Meanwhile, projected demand for the program continues to skyrocket, with an estimated 116,300 Connecticut households eligible to apply for aid this winter.
Matters appeared to get worse this week when federal officials announced the release of LIHEAP funds and Connecticut’s share was $72.1 million, about 7% less than expected.
But Biden recommended a second, supplemental LIHEAP appropriation this week.
Connecticut’s $72.1 million came from an initial appropriation of about $3.7 billion for all states. The president wants to spend another $1.6 billion on top of that, an increase of roughly 43%.
If the extra funding is approved by Congress, and if Connecticut receives a similar share, boosting the maximum grant by 43% would elevate it from $1,350 to $1,931 — significantly higher but still below last winter’s top per household grant of $2,320.
Biden’s new LIHEAP proposal was included within an omnibus $56 billion domestic spending measure. Congress is expected to consider that along with another $106 million in emergency funding, largely to support Israel and Ukraine.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District and a former co-chairman of the Connecticut legislature’s Human Services Committee, said Wednesday that “I’m thrilled [LIHEAP] funding is in the package,” but added that its fate is “murky” right now.
The congressman said he expects both parties on Capitol Hill will want to deal jointly with the president’s domestic and foreign affairs spending proposals.
Courtney, a strong advocate for LIHEAP, also has said he’s worried that the funding approved to date won’t be sufficient to help the neediest of Connecticut’s families this winter.
“The stipends,” he added, “are clearly not going to work for people.”
The Low-Income Energy Advisory Board and other advocates for enhanced heating assistance have argued that Lamont and the General Assembly should break tradition and supplement federal LIHEAP dollars with state funds.
The Lamont administration is projecting another state budget surplus this fiscal year, approaching $1 billion. Connecticut finished $1.9 billion in the black last fiscal year and $4.3 billion in surplus two years ago.
The Lamont administration has argued that funding the heating assistance program is a federal responsibility and that the program doesn’t guarantee any specific level of aid.
Last winter, the governor and General Assembly technically committed $30 million in state resources to supplement LIHEAP but on the condition that those funds 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. Critics charged the administration set maximum benefit levels artificially low to ensure state funds wouldn’t be tapped.
Nora Duncan, state director of the AARP and also a member of the Low-Income Energy Advisory Board, said the president’s proposal would give Connecticut “a little breathing room in what could be a very difficult heating season.”
But Duncan also echoed Coleman’s call for state officials to consider tapping Connecticut’s flush coffers to help out. “State funding could be necessary,” Duncan said, “and lawmakers need to be thinking about this before we go into the 2024 legislative session.”
The next regular General Assembly session convenes on Feb. 7.