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Wednesday December 07, 2011 | 07:33 PM

State Rep. Jon Hinck of Portland and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, both want more money this year for a federal heating assistance program that aids thousands of low-income Mainers.

But Hinck, who is vying for the Democratic Party nomination to run for Snowe’s Senate seat in 2012, charges that Snowe’s support for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution would mean less money for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program and a plethora of other government programs, from unemployment benefits to Social Security and Medicare.

Also running for the Democratic nomination is Matt Dunlap of Old Town, a former Maine Secretary of State. Dunlap filed papers earlier this year to run, but plans a public launch of his campaign Saturday at a the Steelworkers' Local 80 union hall.

Hinck made his charge on the same day that Snowe unveiled legislation – co-authored with Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. – to restore LIHEAP funding for this year to $4.7 billion, the same amount the program got last year. President Obama’s budget proposed a cut to $2.57 billion, and the Senate and House so far have backed spending $3.6 billion and $3.4 billion, respectively.

The Obama administration this fall released $1.7 billion, which would give Maine less than $24 million compared to the about $56 million it received last heating season.

Last winter, about 63,500 Maine households, with an average income of $16,300, got LIHEAP benefits averaging $804 over the winter heating season, according to MaineHousing, which oversees the program for the state. That amount could be about $300 per household for the heating season if no more money is allocated above the $1.7 billion.

Hinck says that Snowe’s preferred balanced budget amendment, offered up with Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., would require tight spending caps, keep all the Bush tax cuts in place permanently, including those for the wealthy, and inevitably result in draconian spending cuts.

“Look, we need to balance the budget, and we can, but it should start with eliminating wasteful subsidies for oil, coal, ethanol, and big agriculture,” Hinck said in his campaign release.

Snowe also has called for the elimination of some tax loopholes and subsidies, including for major oil companies and ethanol.

Snowe said on a conference call today touting her legislation that a balanced budget amendment forced lawmakers to set priorities, not necessarily cut programs like LIHEAP.

“It’s all about choices,” Snowe said, before Hinck issued his campaign release.

In responding to Hinck’s release, Snowe campaign manager Justin Brasell said that, “The fact is a Balanced Budget Amendment would force Congress to set national priorities, which is something the current (Democratic) majority in the Senate has been either unwilling or unable to do - as they've failed to pass a federal budget for more than 900 days now. “

Snowe, who won a third term in 2006 with 74 percent of the vote, is being challenged in the GOP Senate primary by two tea party affiliated candidates, Scott D'Amboise of Lisbon Falls and Andrew Ian Dodge of Harpswell.


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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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