WASHINGTON — Maine will receive more than $7 million in additional home heating assistance for low-income families as part of an emergency contingency fund.
Maine’s congressional delegation announced Wednesday that the Bush administration will immediately release $120.7 million nationwide from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides aid to vulnerable people to help pay their energy bills.
The state’s two senators and two representatives wrote separate letters to the administration earlier in the month asking for additional funds.
Though they said Wednesday that they welcomed the administration’s decision, they added that increased spending remains necessary and they will keep pushing for additional funds for fiscal year 2009, which begins Oct. 1.
Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud of the 2nd District said in an interview that of the $121 million released, more than a fourth, or more than $33 million, will go to New England states, which are identified as needy because of the large number of eligible families that use oil to heat their homes.
Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe said in a press release that Maine received $46.5 million in the current fiscal year, the most the state has ever received.
She said she was pleased but the current economic crisis and the increase in energy prices require a more significant increase in the low-income aid program, which totaled $2.57 billion in fiscal year 2008.
“While release of these funds is a positive step forward, we must do more to mitigate this crisis by fully funding the … program at $5.1 billion,” she said.
Democratic Rep. Tom Allen of the 1st District said in a statement that he is also working to secure full funding for the program.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins said in a press release that the additional $7 million for Maine “will bring a sharp increase in applications for LIHEAP assistance, but many of those requests will be turned down due to a shortage of funds.”
She said she sent a letter last week to Senate appropriators requesting the inclusion of $2.5 billion for LIHEAP next year.
According to Collins, the program assists 4.5 million low-income families nationally each year, which represents only 15 percent of Americans eligible for assistance under the program. To be eligible a family must earn no more than 150 percent of the poverty level or 60 percent of the state median income.
About 48,000 Maine families rely on the program.
Gov. John Baldacci on Wednesday praised the delegation’s efforts and also stressed the need for more federal funding. He announced last month his own short-term energy plan that includes committing $4.5 million to increase the LIHEAP benefit in Maine.
According to the director of the Maine State Housing Authority, the governor’s commitment combined with the $7 million in emergency federal funds will raise the average LIHEAP benefit in Maine to about $600.
“We are moving closer to what we need to keep people warm this winter,” MSHA Director Dale McCormick said in a press release Wednesday. “That $600 benefit will keep the average family warm for about one month, at today’s prices.”
Allen and Michaud said they also were working on changing the eligibility requirements so that more families would benefit from the program.
“Economically people are hurting,” Michaud said. “They are going to be in desperate need this winter. It is really important that Congress looks at expanding eligibility requirements.”
Allen said in a statement that he also filed legislation to create a $2,000 refundable tax credit for fuel costs and a tax credit for small businesses for the amount they spend on fuel above the Labor Day 2004 price and to raise the Internal Revenue Service’s standard mileage rate to 60 cents.
“Congress must take even bolder action to provide relief from high prices to families and small businesses in Maine and across America,” he said.
While Maine’s delegation pushes for additional funds, President Bush’s proposal for the fiscal year 2009 budget actually would reduce funds for the program by 22 percent. The regular fund would be cut from $1.98 billion to $1.7 billion and the emergency contingency fund from $590.3 million to $300 million.