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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Heating assistance at risk in federal bill

Formula in House bill hurts, Cantwell says

On a snowy day when temperatures were expected to dip into the teens, Spokane residents learned the state may lose millions in federal funding for heating assistance to southern states such as Arizona and Florida.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., spoke Saturday to seniors and low-income home heating program advocates in Spokane about a bill that would cut Washington’s heating assistance program.

The Low-Income Heating Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, provides heat assistance to about 100,000 Washington households, according to Cantwell, and the House bill would cut nearly $30 million in Washington’s funding, while some southern states would see increases.

Cantwell said the money was originally intended to be used primarily for heating but that some is allocated to southern states for cooling costs.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a budget bill for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education on Sept. 22. The House counterpart was introduced Sept. 29 and is awaiting approval by the House Appropriations Committee. While the proposed funding levels in the House and Senate bills are similar, the House bill uses a different formula for allocating money to the states, resulting in the decrease in funding to Washington, according to Cantwell.

“I just think now is not the time to change the formula that has been in place for 25 years,” she said.

If passed, Cantwell said, the House bill would mean about 41,000 fewer Washington households would receive heating assistance.

In Spokane County, more than 11,300 households received heating assistance from the program, according to an impact statement prepared by her office. The House plan would provide $2.5 million less LIHEAP funding to Spokane County, meaning about 4,000 fewer households would receive the assistance.

In contrast, the Senate plan proposes $69 million in funding for Washington, she said.

Cantwell is up for re-election next year. Republican state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, who has announced he will run for her seat, could not be reached for comment Saturday evening.

Cantwell’s talk comes just days after the Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs, or SNAP, announced that due to a 50 percent cut in its federal funding the organization will only be able to provide heating assistance to 6,500 households.

In a letter sent to fellow senators, Cantwell called on the Senate to reject the House bill and pass one that “ensures that Washington state gets its fair share.”

She said she doesn’t want struggling families forced to choose between heating their home and buying necessities such as food and medicine.

“You have to remember … that this affects real people,” she said. “It’s not just a budget issue.”