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Thursday December 22, 2011 | 02:47 PM

An announcement by the Obama administration this afternoon that more money is being released for a heating assistance program that aids thousands of low-income Mainers is good news but not exactly a big new development.

That’s because the amount Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program money released by the Department of Health and Human Services already has been trumped by a final 2012 spending bill approved by Congress.

Congress earlier this month approved $3.5 billion nationally for LIHEAP, an amount estimated to yield $38.5 million this winter for Maine. The Obama administration previously had released just $1.7 billion for the program while lawmakers worked on the final spending bill, an amount that would have meant less than $24 million for Maine.

The administration said this afternoon that it has released another $845 million, which would give Maine an additional $6.2 million above the initial nearly $24 million. But, the state already is assured of receiving a total of $38.5 million, regardless.

Lawmakers from Maine and other New England states say $3.5 billion isn’t enough either, and represents a big cut from last winter. They want Congress to come back in January and approve a total of $4.7 billion, the amount allocated for the program last winter.

Last winter, 63,802 Maine households, with an average income of $16,757, got LIHEAP benefits averaging $802 over the winter heating season, according to MaineHousing.

About 65,000 households are expected to apply for the aid this winter, but the per-household benefit would drop to an average of $483 unless more money is approved above the level of $3.5 billion.

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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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