Vermont expected to get $35 million in heating aid (Burlington Free Press)

By Erin Kelly

WASHINGTON -- The Senate is poised to pass legislation that would double home heating aid for low-income Vermonters to about $35 million.

The bill, passed this week by the House, would boost the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program by more than $5 billion nationwide.

Vermont's share would grow from $17 million this year to about $35 million in fiscal year 2009, which begins Oct. 1.

The Vermont congressional delegation, fearing a cold winter and record heating oil costs, had made a funding increase for the program its priority for this legislative year. Congress is expected to wrap up in the next few days.

"If this had not gone through, it would have been a profound disaster for the state," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who introduced the legislation this year. "There would have been real suffering, people going cold, children becoming ill and maybe ending up in the hospital, possibly even people freezing to death."

More than 21,000 Vermont senior citizens and families received heating aid in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The number of Vermonters who need help is expected to grow this winter because of higher heating costs. Residential heating oil prices are projected to average $4.13 per gallon, an increase of about 25 percent over last winter, according to the latest estimate by the Energy Information Administration.

In past winters, Vermont has used all its federal heating assistance and has allocated state funds to give aid to more people.

President Bush, citing the need to trim the federal budget, had proposed $2 billion for the nationwide heating assistance program in his recommended 2009 budget. That would have been a $500 million cut from 2008.

But the Vermont delegation, working with other members of Congress, tacked their $5.1 billion package onto a big, must-pass federal spending bill that Bush is expected to sign. That bill, known as a continuing resolution because it keeps the government funded and operating beyond the end of this month, was approved by the House on Wednesday. It has strong bipartisan support in the Senate, which plans to pass it before adjourning.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who helped craft the spending bill as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he is confident the president will sign the continuing resolution with the heating aid intact.

"It would be irresponsible for him to say that people of limited means can't have the money to survive the winter when the White House is asking us for a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street," Leahy said. "These are real people who could die without heat, not Wall Street executives who are going to lose their golden parachutes."

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who wrote the House bill to increase heating aid, said he is relieved that the funding appears to be secure. However, he said it's still going to be a tough winter for many Vermonters.

"I'm sober about this," he said. "There are so many more Vermonters who need help than are eligible for the program. I expect real challenges ahead. But, without this money, it would have been a catastrophe."