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Rep. Aaron Libby (R-Waterboro)
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For Immediate Release

Date: 01/11/12

Rep. Libby Pens Column on LIHEAP

Heating assistance cuts threaten lower-income Mainers

By Rep. Aaron Libby

The battle is being fought in Washington, but the casualties are right here in Maine and other cold-weather states. The issue is LIHEAP - the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

After huge cuts to the program by President Obama, Maine Senator Olympia Snowe took to the ramparts to get the funding restored. She succeeded partially, but full restoration hinges on a bill that she and several other senators have put forward. Action on that legislation won't occur until Congress returns in January.

Unfortunately for impoverished Mainers, winter won't wait. With the price of heating oil running well over $3 a gallon, the cost of heating our homes this winter will be financially painful. Seventy-five percent of Maine homes are heated with oil, the highest level of oil dependency in the nation. Based on recent forecasts, Mainers will pay an average of about $3,000 to stay warm this winter, almost $600 more than last year.

Heating costs heavily burden middle-income families, but they can be downright punishing for folks at the bottom of the income ladder. Many of them depend on LIHEAP to cover part of their fuel bills.

The program helps less fortunate people pay for oil, gas, propane, firewood and pellets to make it through our brutal winters. It may further assist someone during an energy crisis, such as a broken heating system or a warning from a utility provider that service may be cut off.

In the last fiscal year, the program spent $4.7 billion nationwide. Maine's share was $58 million, which provided roughly 70,000 low-income Maine households with financial assistance. More than half of the recipients were elderly and 32 percent were disabled. The average benefit for participating households was $844 - barely enough to fill one oil tank.

This year, that small amount will be even less. In the Obama budget for the current fiscal year, LIHEAP was slashed to $2.5 billion, with Maine slated to receive $26 million, a cut of more than 50 percent. The consequences of these draconian cuts could be profound. Low-income residents may be forced to choose between fuel and food. The reduction was so severe, in fact, that the Bangor Daily News, in an editorial, said that it "implies a moral bankruptcy on the part of the Administration." It could be, the editors wrote, that the president doesn't even understand LIHEAP.

Members of Congress do understand LIHEAP, however, and Sen. Snowe and others were able to raise this year's total up to $3.5 billion in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012, which passed Congress on December 17. That increase, roughly $900 million, will raise Maine's share to about $40 million. While this is good news for the state, Sen. Snowe has introduced the "LIHEAP Protection Act" (S. 1961), which would bring the total to last year's amount, $4.7 billion. That bill awaits congressional consideration.

In Maine, LIHEAP funds are distributed around the state by Community Action Programs - better known as CAP agencies. There are three related CAP offices in York County - Kittery, Sanford and Biddeford. The money flows from the federal government to the Maine State Housing Authority, then through the CAPs to the fuel vendors. The beneficiaries seldom handle the cash directly.

With the nation facing a debt of nearly $16 trillion, spending must be reduced. In this case, however, the priorities are misguided. Washington hands out about $40 billion every year in foreign aid, oftentimes to countries that hate us. Indeed, the hundreds of billions of dollars of total U.S. spending abroad should be reduced before any domestic cuts are made. President Obama has also showered untold billions of dollars on "green energy" companies, only to see them go bankrupt. We're also told that the waste and fraud in Medicare runs from $80 billion to $120 billion every year. Why not go all out to combat that fraud to help preserve funds for LIHEAP?

Instead, when low-income citizens need extra money to survive a Maine winter, the president says "tough luck." Adding insult to injury, his anti-oil drilling ideology is at least partly responsible for high oil prices.

It's important to note that programs like this are not sustainable over the long term. As a community, we need to find ways to help our fellow citizens. That is only possible by reducing the size of government. With a lower tax burden, people will have more money in their pockets and will be able to assist with private charities. Government was created to protect our rights and liberties, not to control our lives. Our moral obligation is to help the people in our communities. ###

State Rep. Aaron Libby (R-Waterboro) serves on the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee

Jay Finegan
Maine House Republicans
Tel: (207) 287-1445