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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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More aid needed with heating bills

The Spokesman-Review

The weather outside isn’t frightful, but it will be. The scariest part will come when low-income residents turn to government agencies for help with their power bills.

Most of the attention on fuel prices is focused on late-summer travel, but the effects won’t dissipate when residents settle in for another cold winter. The U.S. Energy Department predicts heating costs will rise between 16 percent and 25 percent this year for households that use heating oil or natural gas. While hydropower is relatively cheap, electricity costs have climbed dramatically since the energy shortages that hit the West Coast in 2000.

These dramatic price increases are familiar to people who write out checks each month to utilities, but apparently our national leaders haven’t gotten the news. The Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program is the chief source of money parceled out each year to help low-income residents keep their homes heated. In 1985, Congress granted $2.1 billion. Last year, the total was $1.9 billion.

Factor in inflation and it becomes obvious that LIHEAP is a flicker of what it used to be. The program served 2.5 million more people in 1981 than in 2003, and a mere 13 percent of eligible households benefit from it. Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs had about $84,000 less to work with last year. The prospects for this winter grow even dimmer as energy prices climb and Congress dithers. It looks like even more shivering people will be turned away.

Currently, a House committee has reduced LIHEAP funding by $180 million from last year. Thus far, the Senate is funding it at last year’s level, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Yet again, the realities of the energy crunch have not made an impression on those in warm offices on Capitol Hill.

On Aug. 8, President Bush signed a $12.3 billion energy bill, with billions in subsidies for energy industries and tax credits for homeowners who make their homes more energy efficient. Not much there for the poor who can’t afford to turn on the heat.

The LIHEAP program represents a mere rounding figure in the national budget. It’s unconscionable that we are unable to help as many people as we did 20 years ago. Congress needs to take another look at its 2006 fiscal year budget. Can our leaders honestly say that every expenditure is more important than expanding such a fundamental need?

When Bush ran for office in 2000, he proposed expanding LIHEAP by directing a portion of oil and gas royalty payments to the program. That sounds like a good starting point for a discussion about the cold realities of hot energy prices.

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