State lawmakers to meet on LIHEAP (Rutland Herald)

By Louis Porter, Vermont Press Bureau

MONTPELIER — With the dramatic increase in the price of heating fuel, lawmakers and state officials will meet next week in part to begin trying to figure out how to pay for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, next winter.

As federal funding for the program — which helps those who earn up to 125 percent of the poverty level buy heating fuel — has fallen behind increased costs in recent years, the state has kicked in its own money to reduce the risk that low-income Vermonters' homes will go cold.

But unless the federal government increases funding for the program by next winter, Vermont may have to find a lot more cash to keep the program at its current level. By some estimates the state may have to provide $15 million to $20 million — compared to the roughly $6 million it put up last year — if the program is to continue paying 60 percent of recipients' heating bills.

Last year about 21,680 households in Vermont received money from LIHEAP, which spent a combined $21 million in state and federal money.

The state budget does not usually include money for LIHEAP. Instead, the funding is usually borrowed during the summer from the Department of Corrections — provided it can be paid back early in the next year.

This year there is a plan in the new state budget to set aside several million dollars for LIHEAP. But that would come from money left over in the general fund at the end of the fiscal year that concludes this month, provided those additional funds aren't needed by programs earmarked as higher priorities.

"I am anticipating we will have some funding available at the end of the year," said James Reardon, commissioner of finance and management.

Lawmakers and state officials will also consider other options for approaching the problem of how Vermonters will pay to heat their homes when the Joint Fiscal Committee meets next week.

"We are in the process of analyzing the LIHEAP program," Reardon said.

Even if there are several million dollars available to increase LIHEAP, there is unlikely to be enough so the state can simply make up for a lack of increase in federal funding.

"It's dire. It really is," said Sen. Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

And Vermonters are worried about it, she added.

"It is all that any of us are hearing about out there," Bartlett said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Rick Hube, R-Londonderry, wonders why the budget approved by lawmakers and signed by the governor earlier this year withdraws $1 million in state funding that remained in the LIHEAP account after last winter.

"We are raiding everything imaginable to maintain a spending level we really can't sustain," he said.

But as projected state revenue declined, budget writers in the Legislature and the administration had to come up with $24.5 million in spending cuts at the end of the lawmaking session.

Back in April, when that work was under way, it was not yet clear how bad the skyrocketing cost of fuel would become, legislators and state officials said.

"At the time the budget passed, the fuel price picture was less clear," said Jason Gibbs, a spokesman for Gov. James Douglas. "We are in the process of analyzing the LIHEAP caseload, the impact of the increase of price and the likely availability of federal funds."

The Coalition of Northeastern Governors, led by Douglas, wrote to Congress on Wednesday to ask for support for increasing the funding of the program to $5.1 billion. The measure is now in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Another worry is the simple matter of cash flow. Since the state has begun shouldering a portion of the federal LIHEAP program, some money has been borrowed from the Department of Corrections budget so cash would be available for the start of the heating season. Then Corrections is repaid early in the next calendar year.

But it is not clear there will be money early in 2009 to repay that loan, Bartlett said. Then the state may have to rely on the feds to get the cash to needy residents — and heating fuel dealers — by the start of the heating season.

"I don't see us having the cash we need," Bartlett said.

The bottom line is that more federal money is needed, Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin said.

"Vermonters will freeze in their homes if we don't work with the congressional delegation," he said. "You need to adjust LIHEAP to current prices, to $200 a barrel."

Although Vermont's congressional delegation and others in Congress have tried several times to push for increases in LIHEAP funding, those increases have not — so far — passed into law.