No good reason for cutting heating aid (Burlington Free Press, Editorial)

With fuel prices hitting all-time highs just as the winter heating season begins, more Vermont families will need more help than ever to keep warm. Yet the Bush administration has proposed cutting millions of dollars from the program that is the main source of funding for the state's heating assistance.

The cuts are cruel. The federal government should be seeking to increase funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, better known as LIHEAP, which helped 20,000 Vermont families stay warm last winter.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has proposed increasing LIHEAP funding by $1 billion, and is fighting efforts to cut the program's funding. Sanders' effort has the backing of Gov. Jim Douglas, who also has called on Congress to investigate rising fuel prices.

Calling the situation an "emergency," Sanders said, "No family should be forced to choose between heating their home and putting food on the table for their children."

The average heating bill is expected to hit almost $1,000 this winter, an increase of 10 percent over last winter, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. For those heating with oil, the increase could be as high as 22 percent.

The overall increase could be as high as 18 percent -- almost 32 percent for oil -- if the temperatures turn out to be 10 percent colder than forecast.

In anticipation of tight family budgets that might force families to look for ways to cut heating bills, fire officials in the Northeast recently issued warnings about the dangers of alternative heating that could cause fires or carbon monoxide poisoning.

Yet the Bush proposal would cut LIHEAP funding by $379 million for the current fiscal year. That translates into $8.8 million for Vermont, down from $11.6 million last year, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association.

"At a time when the cost of heating our homes is increasing beyond the ability of many to pay, it would be unconscionable for Congress to support the president's proposal to cut LIHEAP funding for senior citizens and low-income families," Douglas said.

LIHEAP offers modest assistance, typically a few hundred dollars, for the most basic of needs -- heating. There is no good reason to cut that aid when the need for help is rising.