In Washington state, Republicans and Democrats argue over how to finance increased assistance for low-income households dealing with frigid temperatures and skyrocketing power costs.
In Congress, the argument is over whether to bump up energy aid for the needy, and if so, which other programs for the poor should be cut to pay for it. Now that’s cold. But we don’t think it’s a coincidence that lawmakers farthest from their shivering constituents are being the least responsive.
Why boost aid to begin with? Well, Congress allocated $2.2 billion for the Low-Income Heating Assistance Program, which is the chief source of money for people looking for help paying their power bills. It’s the same amount as last year. It’s just a tad higher than the $2.1 billion allocated 20 years ago.
This year alone, natural gas costs will be 44 percent higher, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Other energy costs are rising, too. Thus, heating bills will soar. Research has shown that many people will forgo eating or important medicines to pay the bills that keep them from freezing.
Because Congress fails to factor in inflation, LIHEAP served 2.5 million fewer people in 2003 than in 1981. That trend will continue unless Congress passes emergency funding. Members of Congress know they will face a chilly reception from constituents if they don’t do something, so there is a move afoot to bump up aid. But watch carefully how it is done.
If the proposed $1 billion increase is tucked into the current budget reconciliation bill, don’t expect much help. If it is in the form of an emergency measure, then there is hope. Here’s why, courtesy of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities: The reconciliation bill has a fixed target amount. If LIHEAP aid is increased, other provisions in the bill must decrease. That means an additional round of cuts for programs such as food stamps and Medicaid. So to help the needy in one area, they will have to be hurt in another. If an emergency measure is passed, those other programs won’t be affected.
Even then, there are complications. Because of the formula used to divvy up energy assistance, warm weather states will get the lion’s share of the additional funding. According to CBPP calculations, Arizona would see a 177 percent increase; Washington state would get 4 percent more.
Congress should help cold-weather states now. If warm weather states need help come summer, Congress can revisit the issue.
As for the states, many in cold regions are scrambling to help, but revenue is scarce. Washington state Gov. Christine Gregoire wants the Legislature to permit the diversion of $7.6 million from an assessment on Qwest. But the Legislature doesn’t convene until January and such bills take time. Plus, that’s a one-time funding source that would soon dry up. Republican legislators were rebuffed in their call for a special session in the fall that would roll back utility-related taxes and use the windfall for energy assistance. The savings would be an estimated $20 to $80 per household over the course of the winter.
All states are struggling as they try to come up with the amounts needed to make a significant difference. But at least they’re trying. Congress should take note and begin financing LIHEAP at realistic levels.
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