As winter returned with a frigid blast outside the State House Tuesday, legislative leaders gave their blessing to a plan that adds $6.6 million in state funds to shore up a big hole in federal heating aid for Vermonters.
Gov. Peter Shumlin convened a meeting of the Vermont Emergency Board to gain approval of the funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which he announced he would seek last week. Shumlin’s decision came after it became clear federal LIHEAP funds would fall short of last winter’s monies despite lobbying by Vermont’s Congressional delegation.
Shumlin said the funds were of “tremendous importance” as cold weather returned.
“I can’t tell you how many grateful Vermonters I’ve talked to,” the governor told the board, which is made up of legislative leaders and chairs of key money committees in the House and Senate who can authorize state funding decisions while the Legislature is out of session – or in this case, on opening day and not voting yet. The governor serves as chairman of the board.
Sen. Ann Cummings, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, told the board she recently spent an hour with a disabled constituent who had been afraid to turn on her heat after hearing of cutbacks in LIHEAP aid. Cummings said the additional funds were important to allay the “fear” that exists among LIHEAP recipients that they may have to go cold this winter.
The governor said it was important to get the message out that the state will be providing the same amount of help as last year, when some 27,000 Vermonters received heating aid. Shumlin noted that the funding actually would be 8 percent higher but with fuel costs rising, the assistance would end up roughly the same as last year.
According to the plan approved Tuesday, the state will supplement the shortfall in LIHEAP with a combination of $5.1 million in reserve funds set aside last year in anticipation of cuts and $1.5 million in money from the state’s weatherization fund.
The vote Tuesday also included a repayment plan of $1.5 million to the weatherization fund, which helps low-income Vermonters use less fuel to heat their homes. The weatherization fund has $500,000 left.
In December, when it looked like LIHEAP funding could be cut by more than half, the state considered a transfer loan of $2.5 million from the weatherization trust fund to help cover the loss.
Altogether Vermont is expected to receive $19.5 million this winter from the federal government, down from $26 million last year. With the new state funds, the total will be $24 million this year.
Nationwide, the year-end spending package Congress approved $3.5 billion for the home Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or about $1.2 billion less than last year.
The average benefit last year was around $866, according to the state.
Concerned about the long-term sustainability of the LIHEAP program in light of fiscal uncertainties in Congress as it struggles with debt and political gridlock, the board also passed
a provision that calls for the Department of Children and Families to review LIHEAP funding by March 1.
Gov. Shumlin said there was “no way” the state could make up all the potential cuts in other programs looming at the federal level.
Sen Jane Kitchell, D-Caledonia, noted the LIHEAP program is now 30 years old, having been started in 1981, and the funding crisis this year could prove “constructive” by forcing a broad look at the program.
Rep. Martha Heath, D-Westford, who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said everything from eligibility guidelines to the way the system pays fuel bills needs to be reviewed. She noted fuel delivered under the LIHEAP program is offered at a 10 cent a gallon discount.
Shumlin said efficiencies in the program were essential if it was going to continue to keep aiding Vermonters.
The governor said after the meeting that “every single day” is a balancing act between finding funds and trying to take care of the needs of Vermonters. But he also said it will be hard for Vermont in the future to be able to dig up an extra $6 million.