Low-income heating included in Senate funding bills

Patrick Leahy
Sen. Pat Leahy. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

WASHINGTON — A spending package approved by a Senate committee Thursday fully funds a federal low-income heating benefit program that some feared could be cut.

One of two bills the Senate Appropriations Committee approved includes $3.4 billion for the low-income home energy assistance program, or LIHEAP.

The prospects for the future of the program seemed uncertain earlier this year when President Donald Trump proposed in his budget to eliminate funding for it. His budget cited “sizeable fraud and abuse, leading to program integrity concerns.”

In Vermont, LIHEAP is administered by the Department for Children and Families. Last November, state officials expected the subsidy would help some 21,500 Vermont households to heat their homes.

The state budget for the current fiscal year counts on $17.4 million in federal funds to help Vermonters manage winter heating expenses.

In remarks at the beginning of the hearing, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., vice chair of the committee, praised the inclusion of funding for LIHEAP, which, he said, is “so vital for states in the North.”

A version of the same appropriations bill that passed a House committee earlier this year also fully funded LIHEAP at the previous fiscal year level — meaning the issue is not likely to be contentious if the legislation goes through a conference committee process.

DCF Deputy Commissioner Sean Brown said after the administration’s proposal to cut the program came out, the department was “nervous and concerned” about the potential impact on Vermonters.

“It’s looking like that won’t come to pass,” Brown said.

Federal funding is critical to the heating assistance program in Vermont. Currently, Vermont relies entirely on federal dollars for the program — there is no state appropriation, as there has been in past years.

Brown said the department is currently in the process of finalizing subsidy calculations for the upcoming winter.

LIHEAP is just a small part of the total $164.1 billion package, which funds discretionary spending in the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, Education, and other related initiatives.

The bill passed the committee with bipartisan support on a vote of 30 to 1.

The Senate proposal would increase funding to research of Alzheimer’s disease and other subjects by $2 billion to a total of $36.1 billion.

The bill also increases spending to combat opioid addiction by $665 million over fiscal year 2016.

The legislation would maintain funding at levels currently in place for substance abuse prevention and treatment programs, and sets aside $14 million for a new community prevention program.

Democrats on the committee put forward an alternate version of the bill that would provide more robust funding for many initiatives, including LIHEAP and combating opioid addiction — which was voted down along party lines.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, spoke in favor of the proposal. She said she appreciated the support for fighting the opioid addiction crisis, but that the increased spending is “a drop in the bucket” compared to the total investment needed to curb the crisis.

“This is not going away, and if this is a national emergency we need to start treating it like that,” Shaheen said.

The committee also approved a bill that sets spending levels for state and foreign operations.

That legislation, which passed with unanimous support, includes $6.25 million to Lake Champlain. Part of the funding will support control of the sea lamprey population in the lake.

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Elizabeth Hewitt

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