Facing $60 million loss, CT lawmakers plead with Congress to boost funding for energy assistance programs

Back • Publication Date: September 1, 2022 • Fiscal & Economics

State lawmakers this week sought additional money from Congress to cover an anticipated $60 million funding gap for the state’s low-income energy assistance program, which began accepting applications for the upcoming winter on Thursday.
The gap — which represents more than 40 percent of the program’s total funding last year — was created by the one-time infusion of funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to help sustain the program last year, as Connecticut struggled in its efforts to recover jobs lost during the pandemic.

With that funding now gone, low-income families who received aid from the program last year face the potential loss of hundreds of dollars of benefits, even as the cost of energy has soared throughout much of the year. Republicans, meanwhile, have latched onto the funding shortfall and called for lawmakers to tap into unused funding to expand eligibility for the program to middle class families.

On Monday, the Democratic chairs of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee wrote a letter to the state’s congressional delegation, asking that they approve additional funding for the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides nearly all of the annual funding for the state program run by the Department of Social Services.

“While much of the country has enjoyed an economic rebound as we recover from the pandemic, in the Northeast, and especially in Connecticut, we experience some of the highest costs of home heating in the entire country,” the letter stated. “We now run the risk of having to close the program early or reduce benefits further, which is not only disruptive to our most vulnerable residents, but is also not equitable.”

President Joe Biden proposed an additional $175 million for the LIHEAP program — a 4.6 percent overall increase — as part of his 2023 budget request to Congress.

Experts warn, however, that that increase is not nearly sufficient to provide relief to the millions of Americans who are already behind on their utility bills heading into winter. In Connecticut, at least 430,000 customers were behind on their energy bills last month to the state’s two largest utilities, Eversource and United Illuminating, state officials said.

“The high cost of living in Connecticut, coupled with nationwide inflation is forcing working families to make difficult decisions,” said Emily Byrne, the executive director of Connecticut Voices for Children, a non-profit advocacy group. “Folks who are depending on this benefit to help pay bills will be put in an even more difficult position.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal told reporters earlier this week that the anticipated increase is “inadequate,” while his counterpart, Sen. Chris Murphy, called LIHEAP a “lifesaving program” that needs additional resources.

“No one should be forced to choose between paying their energy bill and putting food on the table,” Murphy said in a statement Wednesday. “That’s why I helped secure a record amount in federal funding for the program in the American Rescue Plan, and I’ll continue to push for additional federal dollars to keep Connecticut residents safe and warm this winter.”

State officials in charge of administering the energy assistance program stressed this week that no formal decisions have been made about the amount of federal funding available, though they anticipate it will be around $79 million.

On Wednesday, Gov. Ned Lamont held a press conference with members of his administration to announce that the application period for the next round of assistance will begin on Sept. 1 and continue through May. For the first time, the applications can be filled out online.

Deidre Giffords, the commissioner of the state’s Department of Social Services, said the agency anticipates around 96,000 households will apply for benefits this winter, around a 4 percent increase from last year, driven both by rising energy prices and easier access to the program.

“We’re really encouraging people to apply early, now is the time,” Giffords said. “Don’t wait until later in the season.”

Earlier in the week, Republican lawmakers sought to amend Lamont’s proposed budget for energy assistance program by adding more than $112 million in unused ARPA funds to keep benefits level from last year while expanding eligibility to middle-income families. Democrats in charge of the committees tasked with approving the spending plan, however, ruled that the amendment was out of order based on the advice of a staff attorney who said that state funding could not be added to the program without a full vote of the Legislature, which is not currently in session.

House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R- North Branford, continued to criticize that decision as “tone deaf” on Wednesday, and said that Lamont should call the lawmakers into a special session to address the issue.

“I don’t know what other warning signs need to pop up for them to realize that we have a crisis that we have to deal with now,” Candelora said.

Democrats, including Lamont, responded by accusing the GOP of political posturing ahead of the November elections. There is still time, they said, for the federal government to come up with additional funding before the benefits start being paid in November, or to boost the program with more funding from the state’s surplus funds early next year when the General Assembly begins its normal legislative work.

“I think it’s just premature,” Lamont said Wednesday. “If the winter is bad and the feds don’t step up, I’ve got a session that starts in January, we’ll be able to address that.”

One of the Appropriations chairs who signed the letter to Congress, state Sen. Cathy Osten, D- Sprauge, said the state risked losing out on additional federal funding down the road if lawmakers commit state resources now — adding that residents who receive assistance through the program should not be worried about using up all their benefits early in the winter, leaving them without money to pay the bills in February and March.

“We have time to address the issue,” Osten said.

In the meantime, Giffords encouraged residents to make use of other assistance offered by the utilities and private non-profits, as well as government programs aimed at helping families increase the energy efficiency of their homes to lower utility bills.

Low-income residents can also apply for hardship protections to prevent utilities from shutting off the heat in winter due to non-payment, Giffords added.

Authors: John Moritz •  Source: CT Insider • View