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Congress Urged to Level-Fund Heating Aid

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Chris Murphy (file photo)

Chris Murphy (file photo)

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By SUSAN HAIGH
Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Officials from Connecticut and an organization of Northeastern states put pressure on Congress on Friday to fund the federal home heating assistance program at least as much as it did last year, predicting dire consequences if deep cuts are enacted.

U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, said the proposed reductions contained in various budget bills “will be the difference between life and death” for many of his constituents.

“This is as devastating and as cruel a cut that could come from the federal government,” Murphy said. “I understand that we are facing tough times as a nation and as a state, but to force seniors and the disabled and those living in poverty to go cold this winter, or to make a choice between oil in the tank or paying for your medications over the winter, is unconscionable by anyone’s standards.”

Murphy said his office is collecting petitions from the thousands of Connecticut residents who’ve received the heating assistance. They describe their personal circumstances and why they need the help. Murphy, who also is working with his colleagues in the Connecticut delegation and those from other cold-weather states, said his office will use those petitions as ammunition in the fight to protect the funding.

“Our hope is, by bringing these voices to bear on the process, that we’ll be able to win this fight,” he said, adding how proposed cuts to the program last year were defeated. “This is not just a Republican and Democrat fight. We need a lot of people convinced in Washington.”

Connecticut received $115 million last year from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Estimates of how much that figure could be cut this year range from $18 million to $70 million, depending on various budget proposals. The anticipated cuts come as more people are expected to seek help with heating bills this winter.

The Council of State Governments Eastern Regional Conference, which represents 11 northeastern states, sent a letter on Friday to the chairmen and ranking leaders of the House and Senate appropriations committees, urging them to provide at least $5.1 billion in LIHEAP funding to states, close to the $4.7 billion distributed last year. They said 8.9 million households are served by LIHEAP in the Northeastern states, where 75 percent of all U.S. heating oil is used.

A substantial cut would make it impossible to serve all those households, according to the group.
“The rapid increase in heating oil prices has created a perilous situation for our residents most in need, many of whom risk falling into arrears on their energy bills,” the letter said.

The fuel assistance program chief for the Vermont Department for Children and Families has estimated it will cost, on average, about $3,300 to heat a home with oil in New England this winter. That’s an increase of about $500 from last year.

In Connecticut, 130,000 households applied for assistance and 117,000 were deemed eligible last winter. This year, about 150,000 are expected to apply, said James Gatling, a board member of the Connecticut Association for Community Action.

“If we don’t get these funds,” said House Speaker Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden, “it’s going to be a disaster.”

State and federal officials are facing a time crunch. Applications are currently being accepted, and services are expected to begin next month.

Meriden resident June Moynihan relies on the fuel assistance to heat her home.

“I’m forced to do this,” she said. “I don’t have any money.”

Anticipating a cut in funding, state lawmakers recently agreed to reduce the basic benefit for eligible residents from $880 to $255 and the crisis benefit from $800 to $500. Those figures could change depending on how much federal funding the state ultimately receives. Lawmakers have also applied for an additional $15 million in federal funds, but it’s questionable whether they’ll get the money considering that Congress is looking to cut the LIHEAP funding.

Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said that if the federal government declines the state’s application for the $15 million, he’s willing to work with the General Assembly to find it elsewhere in the budget.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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