Monday February 14, 2011 | 11:16 AM

Even before President Obama’s proposed 2012 budget was formally released this morning, Maine lawmakers made it clear they oppose the White House’s desire to cut the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st, is “definitely not happy” about the proposal to cut in half a $5 billion program nationally, one that helps 60,000 low-income Mainers pay their heating bills, said Willy Ritch, her spokesman. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd, already was blasting the move on Thursday, saying the "program is a critical lifeline for many low-income families throughout our state."

Likewise, Maine’s GOP senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, put out a joint release Friday afternoon criticizing the attempt to cut the program, saying it would result in LIHEAP assistance for Maine cut in half, to as little as $26.8 million next year from the current funding level of $56 million.

Obama is trying to cut a couple billion dollars out of LIHEAP as part of a proposal that promises to cut back the deficit by $1.1 trillion over the next decade through spending cuts and tax hikes. The heating assistance program is the wrong place to cut, Snowe and Collins said ahead of the budget’s official release. They were among a group of more than two dozen senators who didn’t wait for the budget’s release to send a critical letter on the topic of LIHEAP to the Jacob Lew, White House budget director.

“There are many other areas of the budget that can be cut, and that would not result in such harmful consequences for our most vulnerable families and senior citizens,” Collins said in a statement.

Michaud expressed a similar sentiment, saying on Thursday that while he strongly supports "getting our fiscal house in order...it should not be done on the backs of our most vulnerable Mainers."

Of course, Obama may be aware, in issuing his budget proposal, that LIHEAP is one of those programs that presidents offer to cut – thus helping reach promised levels of savings – knowing full well that Congress will restore the funding when lawmakers pass annual spending bills.

(UPDATED at 11 a.m.: The White House Office of Management and Budget says in a fact sheet about how the president believes his budget proposal will aid low-income Americans that funding LIHEAP at $2.57 billion brings the program down to pre-2009 levels. The program doubled in 2009 because of the increase in energy prices, OMB says. The cut is made "during this period of tough budget choices" and because energy prices have decreased from several years ago, but the White House would revisit the cut and LIHEAP program needs if energy prices go back up significantly, OMB says.)

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
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