WASHINGTON — The head of Maine’s housing authority had a succinct response Monday when asked about President Obama’s proposal to slash by half a program that helps low-income families pay their home heating costs.

“It is a terrible idea,” said Dale McCormick, director of MaineHousing, which oversees the federal home heating assistance program for the state.

In his budget for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, the president proposes giving the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program $2.57 billion nationwide, down from about $5.1 billion this year.

For Maine, that would mean receiving as little as $26.8 million, versus the current level of $56 million, say Maine Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, who oppose the proposed cut.

About 65,000 Mainers, with an average household income of $13,000 a year, rely on the program. They now receive average grants totaling $829 during the state’s seven-month heating season. If that amount is cut in half, it will buy only about five weeks worth of heating oil, McCormick said.

Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree, who represents Maine’s 1st Congressional District, said that is the wrong type of spending cut at the wrong time – especially for Mainers trying to survive brutal winters.

“This is definitely not the time to make it harder for low-income families to heat their homes,” Pingree said Monday.

Rep. Mike Michaud, the Democrat who represents the state’s 2nd Congressional District, said in a written statement Monday that “I strongly support getting our fiscal house in order, but it should not be done on the backs of the most vulnerable Mainers.”

In budget documents, the White House acknowledged that cutting LIHEAP is part of a “period of tough budget choices.”

Obama’s proposal would scale the program back to pre-2009 levels. 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.

“The administration will continue to monitor energy prices going forward and will be willing to revisit program needs if there are significant price increases,” the budget documents said.

Snowe and Collins are part of a bipartisan group of more than two dozen senators who wrote to the White House budget office last week to say they would oppose the cut to LIHEAP. In Maine, the price of heating oil continues to rise, they noted.

“The LIHEAP program is a necessity, not a luxury, and the president must fully account for the devastating social impact (that) significant cuts would have on families in Maine and throughout the Northeast as they struggle to weather the current economic storm,” Snowe said in a prepared statement Friday, when the senators sent their protest letter to the White House.

“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.

LIHEAP also is a target for cuts by House Republicans, who propose slashing $400 million from the program’s emergency pot for the rest of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

The response of the bipartisan group of senators indicates it may be tough to get the Senate, still run by Democrats, to sign off on slashing the program.

Snowe said Monday that, overall, Obama’s budget would increase spending and raise taxes.

“As discretionary spending has increased by nearly 25 percent since 2008, a proposed spending freeze at the 2010 level, which was included in the president’s budget, would merely lock in current levels of unsustainable borrowing, spending and taxing,” said Snowe, a member of the Senate Finance Committee.

Pingree said Obama’s budget would increase funding for the federal Economic Development Administration, which could help a bid for a new fish freezer in Portland, and with efforts to redevelop the soon-to-be-closed Brunswick Naval Air Station.

Michaud noted that the president’s budget is merely a proposal, and that such proposals almost always are significantly changed by Congress as lawmakers move forward with annual spending bills.

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