AUGUSTA, Maine — If Maine doesn’t receive its full allotment of federal heating assistance funds, Gov. Paul LePage said this week he would ask the Legislature to take from Efficiency Maine to bridge that gap.
At an event Thursday at Colby College in Waterville, LePage was asked how he planned to address expected cuts in Maine’s share of Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funds.
His response was to dip into Efficiency Maine, a quasi-state agency that is funded through electricity bill surcharges and various federal dollars. The group’s mission is to promote energy efficiency and offer incentives to home and business owners. Over the next two years, the agency is funded at $53.5 million
LePage said the cuts to LIHEAP could pose an immediate need whereas Efficiency Maine’s programs are largely long term, but he hoped that an alternative would not be necessary.
“The federal government needs to get its priorities straight. In Maine, we put our people first. The federal government needs to put Americans first,” he said. “Some of our most vulnerable, including our seniors, depend on LIHEAP funding to help keep them warm through the long winter season. This drastic reduction will put additional financial burdens on our local towns’ general assistance programs. Mainers just cannot afford to take on these added costs right now.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently notified MaineHousing, which distributes the state’s LIHEAP funds, that it should expect to receive $23 million to fulfill its progam obligations, down from $55.6 million last year.
According to MaineHousing, last year, approximately 64,000 households received LIHEAP assistance. Slightly more than half of the households included seniors or disabled persons. The average benefit was $804.
LePage joined MaineHousing Director Dale McCormick and all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation in opposing the cuts, but it’s not clear yet what Congress will do.
Rep. Jon Hinck of Portland, the lead Democrat of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, said he doesn’t think the Legislature should consider shifting Efficiency Maine funds and criticized the governor for suggesting it.
“I think he’s hostile to energy efficiency efforts for whatever reason,” Hinck said. “It doesn’t sound as good to him as a nuclear power plant or expanding natural gas. But efficiency creates savings that are cheaper than any other form of assistance. Why doesn’t he talk about that?”
A recent report conducted by the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships, or NEEP, examined states that are leading and those that are lagging in capturing cost-effective energy efficiency to help meet energy demand.
While many Northeast states have been leaders in energy efficiency innovation, Maine is struggling in this area, in part because Maine legislators have failed to fully fund Efficiency Maine, according to the report.
“Efficiency Maine is doing some tremendous work in helping residential and business customers wring more out of their energy dollars, and this brings many positives to Maine as a whole,” said Natalie Hildt, manager of policy outreach at NEEP. “We hope this report will help more folks in Augusta and across Maine see what’s possible when everyone’s rowing in the same direction with regards to energy efficiency policy.”
Efficiency Maine has been under scrutiny by the state’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, largely because it acted as the fiscal agent for the failed Maine Green Energy Alliance.
Maine Green Energy Alliance was awarded $3 million in federal grant funds for home energy audits and weatherization improvements but spent only about $500,000 before folding.
OPEGA determined this summer that the Maine Green Energy Alliance operated under weak oversight that likely led to questionable costs but the agency did not misuse funds.
Hinck said he’s just as concerned as the governor about LIHEAP but said that program has been in jeopardy before, which makes energy efficiency efforts all the more important.
“It’s a narrow view of the governor to take money from Efficiency Maine for emergency heating when we gave much more in tax cuts to people that are quite warm,” he said.