Maine’s poor face a winter of higher energy bills and less government help, as Congress and the Obama administration prepare to debate funding levels for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.

The arrival of cooler evenings, and the return of Congress from summer recess, will sharpen the focus on a controversy that erupted last February, when President Barack Obama proposed cutting the program back to 2008 levels.

That could slash the roughly $56 million Maine got during the last fiscal year by one-quarter to one-half, depending on assumptions.

More than 64,000 households received an average benefit of $805 last season, according to the Maine State Housing Authority. Heating oil averaged $3.10 a gallon, so that was enough to buy 260 gallons of oil, or one tank.

Fuel oil prices at the start of this heating season are higher than last year, when Portland had a snowy winter but normal temperatures. If this winter is colder, or if fuel prices spike, the impact will be magnified.

Along with weather, today’s harsh political climate is adding to the uncertainty.

It has become common for politicians to release extra money for LIHEAP, especially in an election year. But the most recent allocations are at very high levels that reflect a boost in 2008, meant to counterbalance record petroleum and natural-gas prices. The ongoing battle over the federal deficit and taxes has created pressure in Washington to scale back the 30-year-old program.

At the same time, a nonpartisan group of politicians want to protect current funding levels. Members range from Maine’s congressional delegation to Gov. Paul LePage, who often is critical of welfare spending but has expressed concern for how residents will stay warm this winter.

Early this summer, 38 senators — including Maine’s Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins — sent a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee urging support for the program. They say the high unemployment rate and the high costs of heating fuels make this the wrong time to reduce funding.

“LIHEAP payments make it possible to avoid shutoffs so that these households do not have to make the difficult choices of paying their home energy bills or affording other basic necessities, such as prescription drugs or food,” they wrote.

Behind the broad appeal is the geographic scope of LIHEAP, which has expanded over time to aid residents in all 50 states.

In Hawaii, for instance, LIHEAP helps offset the high cost of electricity on the islands. More than 7,000 residents sought the credit last year, which averaged $717. This summer’s heat wave in the Midwest highlighted LIHEAP’s role in paying for air conditioning, which becomes a public health necessity in triple-digit temperatures.

“I don’t believe there will be political support in Congress (to cut LIHEAP),” said Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine. “I think it’s a political game.”

But it’s also unclear, Pingree said, how the timing of deficit reduction talks and cuts recommended by Congress’ “super committee” will affect LIHEAP, which typically begins to release money in October for fuel purchases. In the interim, Pingree expects that Congress will agree to a continuing resolution to keep money flowing at some level.

With billions of dollars at stake, LIHEAP has a lobbying group in Washington, the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance. It is supported by social service organizations, utilities and state agencies.

“This is a substantial program in each state,” said Brandon Avila, a spokesman for the group. “Programs like this are a must-do. It’s the basic social safety net.”

Records from Avila’s group show Maine’s LIHEAP funds jumped from $46.5 million in fiscal year 2008, to a peak of $79.2 million a year later, when fuel prices soared. The number of households served climbed from 47,000 to 63,000. The highest concentrations were in Aroostook, Washington and Somerset counties.

Half of the recipients were elderly; one third were disabled.

The campaign’s data also underscore confusion over LIHEAP funding.

The Obama administration’s proposal to slash the program from nearly $5 billion to $2.6 billion has been interpreted by Maine officials to mean a 50 percent cut here, from roughly $56 million to $26 million. But states are subject to different funding formulas, based on the final level of available funds, emergency allocations and other considerations.

Rolling Maine’s total allocation back to the 2008 level — $46 million — would lead to a 23 percent reduction, according to U.S. Census figures.

“Any way you look at it, it has the potential to be a devastating cut,” Avila said.

With so much uncertainty, community action programs are encouraging residents who think they may qualify for heating assistance to call agencies now to schedule interviews, and not wait until cold weather arrives.

“I want to make sure that as many people get into the program as possible,” said Mike Tarpinian, chief executive officer at the Peoples Regional Opportunity Program in Portland.

The agency assisted 6,500 homes last year. It has begun circulating fliers and posting information on its website.

The York County Community Action Corp. is accepting online applications, and circulating information at town offices and grocery stores and with fuel vendors. It assisted 5,200 households last year and has reached out to the most vulnerable residents who had qualified, including those prone to hypothermia. Some residents are calling for appointments, but Debby Downs, the agency’s community outreach coordinator, expects phones to start ringing after the first cool nights of September.

“After the temperature starts to drop, we’ll really get the calls,” she said.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

[email protected]