Editorial: Warming concerns: Winter's not far off (Brattleboro Reformer)

Today is the first full day of summer, a day when the dark and cold of winter is far away.

But winter is coming, and with it, the potential for disaster for low-income Vermonters.

For the past few years, Vermont has had to fight with the federal government to get its share of funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

Anyone earning up to 125 percent of the poverty level is eligible for LIHEAP. Last winter, nearly 22,000 households in Vermont received money from the program, which cost a combined $21 million in state and federal money.

But the cost of heating oil has nearly doubled since last winter, and the state may have to come up with a lot more money to keep LIHEAP going. Last winter, the state's share was about $6 million. This winter, it could be as high as $20 million.

Where this money is going to come from is anyone's guess. As the state's tax revenues decline and the various tricks and budget gimmicks wear thin, there is a very real possibility that there will not be enough money for this winter.

On Wednesday, the Coalition of Northeast Governors, led by Vermont Gov. James Douglas, wrote to Congress to ask for support to increase funding for LIHEAP to $5.1 billion -- or, looked at another way, roughly equal to two weeks of the cost of the ongoing U.S. occupation of Iraq.

The U.S. House of Representatives is considering the measure right now. Counting on Congress and the Bush administration to boost LIHEAP is not a sure thing, but it's always worth it to try.

Then there is the proposal that Vermont's House Republicans came up with this week to stretch LIHEAP funding through increased use of wood heat in homes around the state.

They call for the state's weatherization program to install conventional wood and wood pellet stoves for homes that currently qualify for LIHEAP. Since firewood and wood pellets are still cheaper than heating oil, it could stretch out the purchasing power of recipients.

House Republicans are also calling for Douglas to speed up his proposed low-interest loans for heating equipment, to repeal the state sales tax on wood stoves and pellet stoves and to encourage the Department of Economic Development to come up with incentives to bring more wood pellet manufacturers to the state.

This is a good idea that will boost the wood products industry in Vermont and keep more dollars in the Vermont economy. Douglas appears to be receptive to the idea, though once again, it will be a challenge to find the funding to carry it out.

There was grumbling last week by Democrats that Douglas co-opted many of the Legislature's ideas to increase funding for home weatherization and energy efficiency -- ideas that were part of an energy bill Douglas vetoed last summer and that he eventually signed into law this year. But it doesn't matter who gets the credit at this point, as long as Douglas and the legislative leaders recognize that there is a crisis and action is taken.

The Legislature's Joint Fiscal Committee, led by Sen. Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille, and Rep. Michael Obuchowski, D-Rockingham, will have an emergency meeting next week to consider all the options for dealing with the looming home heating crisis.

The committee has their work cut out for them, but they seem willing to work with the Douglas administration and state leaders in the public and private sectors to come up with solutions. Better to start now, under the summer sun, then to wait until winter's return -- when it will be too late to make a difference.