June 19, 2018
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Governor’s confusing commitment to LIHEAP

By David Farmer

In his weekly radio address and during several public events, Gov. Paul LePage has been sharply critical of President Obama’s proposal to reduce funding for the low-income heating assistance program.

On this issue, LePage is absolutely correct.

As the governor rightly points out, last year more than 60,000 Mainers needed help to heat their homes. LIHEAP was there to make sure they had at least some way to heat their homes for winter.

The governor is right when he says our state is the oldest in the country, meaning that many of the people who need help the most are elderly trying to stay in their homes. With heating oil prices to reach and surpass $4 a gallon, there will be an incredible strain on families who are already struggling to get by.

Maine’s housing stock remains among the oldest in the country, and homes often lack proper insulation and energy efficiency technology, meaning they’re more expensive to heat.

While our economy continues to limp along, we should not cut funding for LIHEAP.

What I don’t understand is how this position is at all consistent with the policy that he has advanced or the demands by both he and the Republican Party to reduce spending at almost any cost – including a threat to crash the world economy by defaulting on debt payments.

During budget negotiations this spring, Gov. LePage proposed Draconian cuts to Medicaid, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, General Assistance and the Drugs for the Elderly Program. Many of the worst of these cuts were turned back by the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee and the Legislature.

This list is often referred to derogatorily as “welfare,” and sometimes includes the federally supported food supplement program.

While Maine is facing a potential reduction of about $30 million in federal LIHEAP funding, the governor’s own plans would have taken an even bigger toll on some of the same families who rely on heating assistance.

If his plans had passed as proposed, prescription medicine for seniors would have been placed out of financial reach. Thousands of Mainers would have lost access to health care and thousands more would have been turned away for General Assistance, which also can be used to pay for utility bills.

Like TANF and food assistance, LIHEAP is funded primarily with federal dollars. Each aid program is distributed based upon need, and the qualifications are different.

Even with Medicaid, called MaineCare here, the federal government picks up the majority of the costs of the program that serves seniors, the disabled, children and poor families.

In one sense, LIHEAP resembles MaineCare. Unlike TANF and food assistance, which give either a cash benefit or Electronic Benefits Transfer card to needy families, LIHEAP and MaineCare pay businesses directly for the services that they provide to people who are eligible.

MaineCare pays nursing homes, hospitals, clinics and other health care providers who bill the system directly.

For LIHEAP, the Maine State Housing Authority contracts with energy companies – often oil companies but also the providers of natural gas, electricity, kerosene, wood and other fuels. A family applies for assistance. If approved, it then picks the contractor in their area who best matches its needs.

The family receiving the benefit never sees a dime of the money. It goes straight to the businesses filling the oil tank or delivering the electricity.

While the proposed cut takes $30 million worth of heat from the poor, it also takes $30 million out of the pockets of energy companies.

And perhaps this is the reason that Gov. LePage remains committed to LIHEAP funding while working vigorously to undermine other assistance programs.

I believe that Gov. LePage is concerned about the prospects of a long, cold winter and a public health emergency developing because too many Mainers don’t have the money to stay warm.

The thought of an elderly person or a disabled child dying from exposure because their family ran out of money for heat is unacceptable in the richest country in the world. It should be a crime.

But the same is true when our state tries to take away that family’s medicine, doctor’s visits or the money they use to buy groceries. Death can come knocking on many different doors.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.

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