Keep Vermonters warm this winter

By Sen. Bernie Sanders

With cold weather approaching, the recession dragging on, poverty increasing and home heating prices rising, many people in our state and throughout the country will have a hard time affording the heating fuel they need to keep their families warm this winter.

Meanwhile, because of proposed cuts in Washington, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is in serious jeopardy at a time when the need is greater than ever before.

LIHEAP has helped millions of Americans, including seniors and families with children, keep their heating oil tanks full.  I was proud that a bill I introduced two years ago increased funding nationwide to $5.1 billion a year, enough to help states meet a growing need during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Last winter, LIHEAP helped 26,500 Vermont families.  Nearly 80 percent of federal heating assistance helped the elderly, families with pre-school children, and the disabled.

This winter, experts say heating oil prices in Vermont may surpass $4 a gallon. That would be about a 25 percent jump from last winter's prices.

But unless Congress and President Obama act soon, the program to help millions of Americans will be dangerously underfunded.

President Obama, in the past, has been a strong ally of the home heating assistance program. The budget he submitted to Congress last February, however, called for cutting LIHEAP funds in half. The amount he budgeted for this winter was based on what turned out to be seriously flawed projections that energy prices would fall. He said at the time he would reconsider if the projections were wrong. They were. Prices instead have soared. I have asked him to reconsider.

Congressional appropriations committees have proposed almost $1 billion more than the president budgeted, but that would still not be nearly enough to meet the needs.  What's needed, in the midst of this terrible recession, is to at least retain the $5.1 billion funding level of recent years.

Under the president's initial proposal, home heating assistance in Vermont would drop from $866 to just $400. That's not even enough money to fill up one tank of heating oil.  Nationally, state energy directors estimate the proposed cuts would leave few options but to drop millions of families from the program. 

Governor Shumlin and the five other governors from New England recently warned of the dangers of slashing the program's funds. They wrote that Vermont and the other states in our region "will be required to take drastic measures that will endanger the most vulnerable LIHEAP households." 

As wintertime temperatures in New England and across the northern tier fall to 20 below zero or colder, the home heating assistance program is a lifeline for some of our most vulnerable citizens. Some Sixty-seven thousand Vermonters, or 10.8 percent of our state's population, lived in poverty last year.  That's an increase of nearly 10,000 Vermonters from just one year earlier, according to the Census Bureau. 

Nationally, the statistics are even worse.  A record-breaking 46 million Americans are living in poverty and 25 million people throughout the country need a full-time job. Nearly one out of four children live in poverty, the highest childhood poverty rate of any major country on earth.  We cannot allow rising heating prices to force more of our neighbors into poverty.

Senior citizens on fixed incomes haven't received a cost-of-living adjustment in their Social Security benefits for two years in a row, even as healthcare and drug prices have soared. Cutting essential help to heat their homes is unconscionable. We cannot force seniors to choose between heating their homes this winter or buying the prescription drugs they need.

Yes.  We do need to address the growing deficit, but there are fair and sensible ways to do it.  We must demand that the wealthiest people in this country start paying their fair share of taxes.  We must end loop-holes which allow large corporations making billions a year in profits to avoid paying any federal taxes.  We must take a hard look at excessive military spending.

In the richest country on the face of the earth, however, we should not be balancing the budget on the backs of low income seniors, children and disabled Americans. The home heating assistance program must be fully funded.  Vermonters and people throughout our country must not be forced to go cold this winter.