This story was changed at 9 a.m. Saturday to correct the time frame for Maine households receiving heating assistance funds.

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration’s release of funding for a heating assistance program that aids low-income Mainers was criticized Friday by Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, who said it doesn’t go far enough.

Snowe joined Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island in criticizing the White House, after they learned the administration was releasing $1.7 billion for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, with $23.9 million of that headed to Maine. President Obama’s administration took action because Congress hasn’t approved a final 2012 spending bill that includes the LIHEAP funding.

But Snowe and Reed say the White House is sending too little money. They say the president set the funding level too low to begin with in the 2012 budget he proposed in February, which called for $2.57 billion nationally for LIHEAP, down from about $5 billion.

The $1.7 billion is being released while the federal government operates under a temporary 2012 spending bill that expires Nov. 18. The 2012 fiscal year began Oct. 1.

The Obama administration said states can apply for some of an additional $136 million after Jan. 1.

The House and Senate have proposed increasing Obama’s budget proposal, with the House Appropriations Committee allocating $3.4 billion for 2012 and the Senate Appropriations Committee $3.6 billion. But Congress is probably weeks away from finalizing a labor, education and health and human services spending bill containing the funding.

The Senate version is more favorable to cold-weather states. Under the Senate bill, which allocates based on energy costs and poverty levels, Maine would receive nearly $46 million this winter in formula funding, and could qualify for part of a $200 million nationwide emergency pot. Under the House bill, Maine would get $33.9 million, and there is no emergency fund.

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.

This winter, MaineHousing estimates, based on applications since August, that it will have 65,000 applicants. The state would have to receive about $55 million to $60 million to serve that many households without cutting benefit levels, said Dale McCormick, director of MaineHousing.

A $23.9 million allocation would be “less than half what we need to run this program,” McCormick said.

Snowe said in a joint release with Reed that, “The administration’s failure to recognize the hardship of home heating oil prices on low income families was a mistake earlier this year in the president’s budget, and this recent announcement simply is tone-deaf to the historic challenge facing Maine.”

Reed said in the statement that, “It is clear that more help is needed soon, and Senator Snowe and I will continue to look for ways (to) bring funding closer to the levels it has been in recent years. While there are significant budget challenges, it would make more sense to end taxpayer subsidies and giveaways for big oil companies rather cut heating aid at the start of winter.”

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

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