Obama budget would cut heating assistance in half

Posted Feb. 10, 2011, at 5:29 a.m.

WASHINGTON — A person familiar with President Barack Obama’s budget proposal says he wants to cut $2.5 billion from a program that provides home heating assistance to the poor, which would reduce it by half.

Under the proposal, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, would drop from $5.1 billion to about $2.5 billion — the 2008 level.

The individual discussed the budget proposal on condition of anonymity because Obama’s 2012 spending proposal has not been formally released. The White House plans to send the budget proposal to Congress on Monday.

The individual said energy prices have dropped since spring 2008, when Congress boosted the heating assistance funding to $5.1 billion.

The spending proposal was first reported Wednesday by National Journal.

In Maine, housing officials estimated in late 2010 that low-income households here were expected to receive an average of $553 in heating fuel assistance this winter. MaineHousing Director Dale McCormick said about 64,000 households were expected to receive help through LIHEAP. She noted at the time that this year’s benefit was far below last winter’s average payout of $844 per eligible household, but was in line with historic levels of funding.

The National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association will announce Wednesday that 8.9 million households are expected to qualify for financial help this winter, up from 8.3 million last winter. It’s the third year in a row the number of households needing assistance has set a new high.

The chief reason is the economy, according to Mark Wolfe, Executive Director of NEADA. “We have this group who weren’t poor before the recession, who are poor now and scrambling for whatever they can get,” Wolfe says. “It’s a tough situation.”

Congress doubled funding for LIHEAP to $5.1 billion two years ago and matched that level last year. Congressional Republicans are expected to try to pare that back during budget negotiations next week.

Three House Democrats, Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Gene Green of Texas are expected to call for maintaining the $5.1 billion level at a press conference scheduled for Wednesday.

“In the middle of such a harsh winter, where heating bills have piled up along with the snow, we can’t leave our nation’s low-income families out in the cold by cutting this energy assistance program,” said Rep. Markey, the top Democrat in the House Natural Resources Committee in a statement Tuesday.

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