February 13, 2011

Our View: Maine delegation should fight heat assistance cut

Paying for efficiency improvements would be better than cutting the program midwinter.

A proposal from President Obama to slash billions from the low-income heating assistance program, known as LIHEAP, would have a disastrous effect in Maine. The state's congressional delegation should oppose it -- vigorously.

Yet reducing LIHEAP spending, as a long-term policy, makes great sense for Maine and the nation, as long as fewer dollars for subsidized heating oil means fewer homes are solely dependent on oil-burning furnaces, or more homes have been renovated for maximum energy efficiency.

Heat, after all, is not an option. And LIHEAP is an important supplement for thousands of Mainers -- some 63,000 households receive the benefit, according to federal statistics. The benefit, it must be noted, pales against current oil prices: An average of $860 per recipient, about one tank of oil.

The president is proposing, with tacit approval of majority Republicans in Congress, to halve the current funding for LIHEAP from $5.1 billion to $2.5 billion. The National Journal, which first reported the story, did say the program's emergency fund of $590 million would remain.

It's not enough.

LIHEAP, as a social safety net, is easy to defend. Pundits are analyzing the president's proposal under the rubric of "Who Wants Grandma to Freeze?" which about sums up the worst-case scenario. This program heats Maine's old homes during frigid winters. By that standard it is essential.

Defending LIHEAP as an expense, however, is not as simple, especially in Maine. This state has the unenviable reputation of having the nation's oldest housing stock, and even worse, 80 percent of homes are dependent on heating oil. LIHEAP money is literally burned due to these conditions.

This is why furthering Maine's nascent energy efficiency programs and alternative heating incentives is so crucial. They are imperfect -- the recent Green Energy Alliance saga, for example, was a disaster -- but Maine's future safety and well-being hangs on their ultimate success. They must work.

And LIHEAP must be there to bridge the gap.

A more reasonable approach for the president is a gradual reduction of federal LIHEAP spending that's tied to benchmarks of greater energy efficiency. The president's desire to slash the amount of money that Washington spends on oil is understandable, yet his drastic plan puts too many people at risk.

Popular television shows like "Intervention" and "Celebrity Rehab" chronicle the struggles of drug addicts when confronted with their demons; Maine, and the nation, must suffer through a similar process to kick its appetite for oil, particularly from foreign sources.

The process is long and challenging, and ultimately rewarding. But it cannot be done swiftly, through jarring actions.

Addicts don't respond to cold turkey treatment, and what President Obama proposes with his cuts to LIHEAP is a cold turkey remedy to his country's most pervasive addiction.

It is the wrong thing to do. Maine's congressional delegation should use its collective influence and tell the president to think again.

While we support the notion of spending less on oil, it cannot be done so drastically, and at such a high cost to our citizens.


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