A perfect winter storm of Washington budget cutting, gridlock and miscalculation could leave thousands of low-income Mainers who rely on federal heating assistance out in the cold.

It’s a situation Dale McCormick, director of MaineHousing, which oversees the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program for the state, characterizes tersely as “grim.”

In February, President Obama released his proposed 2012 budget and called for giving LIHEAP $2.57 billion nationwide, down from $5.1 billion.

For Maine that would mean receiving as little as $26.8 million this winter, compared to about $55.5 million the state received last winter.

The White House acknowledged in budget documents that cutting LIHEAP is part of a “period of tough budget choices.” The program’s funding doubled in 2009 in response to a spike in energy prices, and those prices have since declined, the White House said in February.

Not exactly. State energy officials reported last week that the average price in Maine for heating oil was up to $3.51 per gallon, a 1 cent increase. That’s a continuation of a trend that McCormick and other advocates say is going to make for a tough winter for Mainers of modest incomes looking at having to spend some $3,000 over the winter to fill their heating tanks.

A skeptic might wonder whether the White House slashed LIHEAP’s budget, at least in part, knowing that Congress was likely to restore funding as it has in the past.

Indeed, the House and Senate since have added some to Obama’s budget proposal, with the House Appropriations Committee allocating the program $3.4 billion and the Senate Appropriations Committee $3.6 billion.

The Senate committee rejected an amendment co-authored by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to add $500 million for LIHEAP. But importantly for Maine, the difference between the House and Senate versions is much greater than it might appear.

The Senate version favors cold-weather states more than the House version, and it also sets aside money for emergency funding.

Under the Senate bill, which is based on energy costs and poverty levels, Maine would receive nearly $46 million this winter in formula funding, and the Senate version also includes a $200 million nationwide emergency pot. But under the House bill, which divides the money more evenly among cold and warm weather states, Maine would get just $33.9 million, and there is no nationwide emergency fund.

Another problem: the 2012 fiscal year began Oct. 1, and Congress is weeks away from finalizing the big labor, health and human services and education spending bill that contains the LIHEAP money. There are stop-gap measures in place for temporary funding, but Maine and other states really have no idea how much they will get and be able to pay out in per-household benefits.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, calls “heating a necessity, not a luxury.”

Snowe says that’s why she was a lead author of a letter signed by 37 other senators urging Congress not to cut LIHEAP funding, and has pushed the White House to begin releasing LIHEAP funding to states as soon as possible.

Late Friday, the Obama administration announced that it would release an initial $1.7 billion for LIHEAP, with Maine’s share of that initial release totaling $23.9 million. Snowe’s office said that more money is needed because the early part of the winter is a key time to figure out benefit levels.

Still, all indications are that the average Mainer who is eligible for the program is going to get less help this winter than last winter.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st, said last week she was disappointed both by Obama’s proposed deep cut and the House’s approach that provides less money for Mainers, saying that now isn’t the time to cut LIHEAP funding.

Last winter, about 63,500 Maine households, with an average income of $16,300, got LIHEAP benefits averaging $804 for the winter, McCormick said.

This winter, MaineHousing is estimating, based on applications gathered starting in August, that it will have 65,000 applicants requesting LIHEAP aid.

“More people will apply because the price of oil is higher, the fuel dollar will buy fewer gallons and on top of all that, Congress and the president are all aiming at a cut,” McCormick said, adding that 53 percent of LIHEAP recipients are elderly or disabled.

How much does MaineHousing think is really needed to meet the need in Maine this winter? McCormick says, “If we could get $55 million to $60 million, we would be OK.”

Whatever MaineHousing does wind up getting from the federal government, and it won’t be close to that amount, the organization plans to set aside $1.5 million for its own emergency fund to help Mainers who get into dire straits.

Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd, said what may happen is that Congress passes less money this year as part of the final 2012 budget, but then as the need is really highlighted in January and February, lawmakers will be forced to come back and approve additional funding. 

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at:

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