February 27, 2009 in Idaho

Stimulus will boost weatherization

Hundreds more North Idaho households could get help
Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer

BOISE – Hundreds of poor North Idaho families could see their homes weatherized and made more energy-efficient thanks to the federal economic stimulus bill, Idaho lawmakers learned Thursday.

“We can see putting a lot of people to work installing insulation, replacing windows in homes that will reduce the carbon footprint of Idaho,” said Idaho Health and Welfare Director Dick Armstrong. “It’s one-time – we fix a home, we fix the home forever.”

It’s one small piece of the stimulus bill’s complex impact on health and human services in Idaho, but Armstrong said the news that Idaho’s low-income home weatherization program will more than triple for the next two years is “exciting.”

Even more exciting to legislative budget writers: A boost in the federal match rate for Medicaid will save Idaho’s general fund $52 million in the current year, and $73 million in 2010. Those figures are possible, however, only after the painful budget cuts that already have been imposed in Idaho’s Medicaid program this year. But they’re on top of the $40 million Idaho Medicaid officials had built into their budget for next year in anticipation of the federal stimulus.

That means Idaho can spend those sums in other portions of its cash-strapped state budget.

Armstrong sounded a note of caution, however, saying the newly approved Medicaid cuts – one bill still is pending in the Senate – haven’t yet had a chance to show savings. The cuts include ending nonemergency transportation for some recipients, freezing nursing-home rates, and trimming back treatment hours for some patients.

“Our general funds will not see a significant improvement for many years down the road,” Armstrong said. “So as we look at this, we have to make sure that we don’t build problems for 2011.”

There’s no such worry with the weatherization program, which usually serves about 1,400 Idaho homes a year, spending $4 million to $5 million in federal funds. For the next two years, the program will get $31 million.

“There are a lot of people out of work,” said Larry Stamper, weatherization director for Community Action Partnership, which serves the state’s 10 northernmost counties. “We are not having a problem right now getting homes.”

In the 10 northern counties, the agency has been weatherizing about 350 homes a year, Stamper said. As long as residents fit income guidelines, it doesn’t matter if they’re homeowners or renters. “If people qualify, they get ahold of us and there is no cost to them whatever,” he said.

Legislative budget analyst Amy Castro told lawmakers that if the work was targeted to homes where families receive federal LIHEAP energy assistance help, it could reduce future costs for that and allow that aid to go to more families.

Lawmakers say the stimulus-related savings on Idaho’s share of Medicaid could lessen the planned state personnel cuts of 5 percent being contemplated for fiscal year 2010.

“Perhaps it won’t be the 5 percent,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chairwoman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “I don’t see any other way to save jobs.”

The panel held hearings Thursday on the stimulus money for health and human services; today, it’ll examine transportation funds.

Among Thursday’s revelations:

•About $12 million could go to Idaho Division of Welfare programs for child care assistance for low-income families. The division could also get grants totaling nearly $5 million to increase access to housing, jobs, health care and nutrition assistance for residents who earn up to $44,100 for a family of four.

•The state could get $1.1 million over two years to cover rising administration costs to distribute food stamps. Last year, Idaho distributed about $9 million in stamps a month, but with the economy plunging, distributions in December 2008 rose to $14 million.

•State immunization programs could get nearly $3 million.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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