DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — If President Obama has his way, Maine would receive about half of the federal funds for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program that it did last winter, Gov. Paul LePage says.
LePage told participants at a “Capitol for a Day” appearance in Dover-Foxcroft on Thursday evening that he had been notified earlier that day of the proposed cuts.
“The federal government is going to cut the LIHEAP program in half,” he said. Last year, Maine spent $58 million for LIHEAP, and this year, LePage said, the federal government has said it will cut it to less than $30 million. That reduction comes at a time when the cost of heating fuel is expected to be higher than last year, he said.
“I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that people aren’t found frozen in their homes,” LePage said. “We’re going to have to shift monies from one end to another end, and that’s the way it works.”
Obama’s proposal includes about $2.6 billion for LIHEAP and is a cut from the previous year, Ed Gilman, spokesman for 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, said Friday.
“It’s traditionally, over the last few years, been fully funded at $5.1 billion, give or take,” Gilman said.
Although the president has proposed the cut, Gilman said the House hasn’t yet taken up the bill that contains LIHEAP funding. The House Appropriations Committee has jurisdiction over the energy assistance program, which is used for heating assistance in colder states and cooling assistance in hotter states, he noted.
Earlier this spring, the Senate rejected the president’s proposed budget.
Michaud and 2nd District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, both Democrats, and U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both Republicans, all strongly support LIHEAP. They have submitted letters to the Appropriations Committee and the subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education opposing the cut and asked that the bill include at least $5.1 billion.
The economic downturn and continued high energy prices have caused record numbers of families to turn to LIHEAP for assistance for the third year in a row, according to the delegation.
“Senator Collins has always been a strong supporter of the LIHEAP program and has consistently fought for adequate funding for this important program,” spokesman Kevin Kelley said Friday. Collins is concerned that a severe cut would have a devastating impact on tens of thousands of households in Maine, including low-income families and the elderly who rely on the assistance to help heat their homes in the winter, he said.
“It’s outrageous that we’re considering balancing the budget on the backs of those who can least afford it,” Pingree said Friday. “Maine is in the middle of a heat wave now, but before you know it we’ll have to start heating our homes again.”
She said nearly 70,000 households in the state depend on LIHEAP to get through winter. In addition, the cuts would have a terrible impact on local economies, she said. “Every dollar these families lose in heating assistance is one less dollar going into their communities at the grocery store or mechanic.”
Snowe said in a statement Friday that the consequences of significant LIHEAP cuts would disproportionately affect New England residents, who already are facing a 25 percent increase in home heating oil costs this year. “For Mainers, heating is a necessity, not a luxury,” she said.
Melanie Hurlburt, division manager of the LIHEAP program for Penquis, which serves about 14,000 households in Piscataquis, Penobscot and Knox counties, said any cut would hurt Maine families.
“Just because they cut funding doesn’t mean the need goes away,” Hurlburt said Friday.
Penquis received about $10 million in LIHEAP funds last winter after an infusion of funds was provided to the state in January, she said. “It really concerns me that if it stays at $30 million how it will affect … the low-income and the elderly.”
The National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association states that about 8.9 million families nationwide are expected to receive LIHEAP heating assistance this winter, an increase of 16 percent from two years ago.
Reducing funding for LIHEAP to under $2.6 billion would mean that more than 3.1 million families nationwide no longer would be able to receive help from the program, according to Maine’s congressional delegation.
The average cost of heating with oil over the last five years has increased from $1,337 to $2,124 last winter, according to the Energy Information Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Energy. The average cost of heating with propane rose from $1,275 to $1,966 and the average cost of heating with electricity increased from $723 to $941. Prices are expected to increase again this winter.