Low-income heating assistance is once again becoming a political football in Washington. As surely as temperatures fall in winter and heating oil prices climb, Maine’s congressional delegation will be fighting for a program that can be a matter of survival for many state residents.

This should not be an annual crisis. Maine is the poorest state in New England, and it has some of the nation’s oldest housing stock and highest reliance on heating oil. Until some of that changes, low-income Mainers are going to need help keeping their homes warm enough to survive predictably hard winters year in and year out. In a recent interview, Sen. Susan Collins rightly noted that there should be a long-term commitment to the low-income heating program, and Congress should be using more federal funds to winterize homes so that the heating assistance dollars won’t be wasted.

Federal heating assistance is always a tough sell politically. Sun Belt conservatives are always looking to cut or eliminate funding for a program that mostly helps people in the Northeast.

Three years ago, Maine received $56 million in federal heating assistance. This year agencies are distributing $34 million, and we were lucky to get that much. If Congress had not passed the first bipartisan budget since 1988 last month, the heating aid would have been subject to sequestration cuts, forcing assistance to be spread even more thinly. Reducing the demand for energy is a better way to control the program’s costs. The federal Weatherization Assistance Program, targeted to help LIHEAP-eligible households, spends just a fraction of what’s allocated for filling oil tanks on lowering the demand for energy.

About 50,000 households in Maine are eligible for heating assistance, but only 200 or so homes are sealed and insulated by the weatherization program each year.

These are investments that pay for themselves quickly, and keep returning dividends year after year.

Maine has successfully undertaken several weatherization programs recently. Since the passage of the comprehensive energy bill last year, Efficiency Maine, an independent trust, has used some greenhouse gas credits acquired from fossil-fuel burning power plants to create a variety of loan programs that help reduce household demand for energy including oil. It has a budget of $6 million to invest in homes, which will, over time, reduce the amount spent in heating during future winters.

That won’t help people get through the current cold snap, but programs like these will make a difference in years to come. If Congress is really interested in shrinking the LIHEAP budget over time, it should put more muscle behind weatherization programs now.

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