EDITORIALS

LIHEAP cut is value choice, not necessity

Posted Aug. 23, 2011, at 5:41 p.m.
In this Friday, Aug. 12, 2011 photo oil is delivered to a residence in Harpswell, Maine. President Barack Obama’s proposal to chop the budget of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program nearly in half looms in a region where 70 percent of the households heat with oil. Latest figures show more than 350,000 of those households received LIHEAP support. Maine’s LIHEAP funding from the federal government could drop from $58 million for this year to about $26 million.
AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach
In this Friday, Aug. 12, 2011 photo oil is delivered to a residence in Harpswell, Maine. President Barack Obama’s proposal to chop the budget of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program nearly in half looms in a region where 70 percent of the households heat with oil. Latest figures show more than 350,000 of those households received LIHEAP support. Maine’s LIHEAP funding from the federal government could drop from $58 million for this year to about $26 million.

There’s an air of inevitability these days around any proposal to cut federal spending. Americans generally believe the federal government has too much debt and needs to rein-in spending.

But when an actual, specific cut is proposed — even in the realm of assistance to needy people, a broad category many Americans say is too generous — that air of inevitability turns to resistance.

Governors of New England states — including Maine Gov. Paul LePage — are sounding the alarm about President Barack Obama’s proposal to cut in half funding for LIHEAP. LIHEAP — the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program — helps poor people pay for oil, gas, propane, firewood and pellets to make it through our long, cold winters.

Gov. LePage, who consistently argues that too much tax money is devoted to assistance programs, is now worried about the president’s cuts; the inconsistency is worth acknowledging. “I’m deathly afraid of this winter. We need to be concerned about people freezing,” he said recently.

Rep. Mike Michaud sharply parted ways with his fellow Democrat on the cuts: “The president clearly does not understand the LIHEAP program and what effect it will have on a state like Maine,” he said. “The president is just wrong.”

The fiscally conservative governor and loyal Democratic member of Congress haven’t changed values. Rather, they are seeing the street-level implications of budget cuts. Concerns about people freezing to death are not hyperbole.

With higher oil prices, the average cost of heating a home in New England this winter will approach $3,000, which is almost $600 more than last year. The president’s proposal would cut Maine’s LIHEAP’s allocation from $58 million to about $26 million.

The other members of Maine’s congressional delegation likely will join Rep. Michaud in fighting the LIHEAP cuts, as well they should, but the arguments they will make could miss the larger point. Cutting a sensible, life-line program like LIHEAP is a choice. It is a choice to not cut other spending and it is a choice to not eliminate tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.

Rep. Michaud hinted at this analysis, saying, “I know we all have to cut, but it’s a matter of priorities.” That sentiment might be tweaked to say that not all should have to cut; not the poorest among us, who through no fault of their own have a meager income with which to pay for heating fuel.

One can hope that the LIHEAP cuts may be disingenuous on the part of the Obama administration. Cuts to the program have been proposed in each of the last 15 years and, typically, members of Congress relent and restore most of the funding.

Still, such a proposal implies a moral bankruptcy on the part of the Administration. It could be that the president doesn’t understand LIHEAP, as Rep. Michaud said. Or he is unable to appropriately weigh the fears of a poor, elderly woman in northern Maine facing an empty oil tank this winter against the political implications of erasing tax breaks for the wealthy man who spends winters in the Caribbean.

Either scenario is shameful.

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