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LIHEAP Funding More Important than Ever

By State Sen. Darrel J. Aubertine

Last week Congress came through with a much needed plan to increase funding for LIHEAP, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Every year this program helps thousands of Central and Northern New Yorkers pay their heating bills and with fuel prices at record levels, this assistance will be more important than ever this year.

We’ve seen home heating oil prices in our region jump to more than $4 per gallon—a 55-60 percent increase over last year. Kerosene is up over $4.50 per gallon for a 57 percent increase and Propane is around $3 per gallon for a 27-36 percent increase. These prices are going to have serious implications throughout Central and Northern New York.

The Bush administration has talked about cutting this program, but with these prices, that should not be an option this year. We cannot in this economic climate leave people to make a choice between medicine, food or fuel. We must not put families at risk this winter by forcing them to retrofit an old stove or use space heaters improperly in order to keep warm, affordably. This funding could save lives and keep people from going deep into debt just to get by in the coming months.

The legislation that Congress passed will increase the total allocation for LIHEAP to $5.1 billion. New York will get close to 10 percent of that funding with $490 million for households in our state. This represents a 37 percent increase over last year’s allocation of $357 million. With the president’s signature we will be able to increase benefits in New York to more than $600 for low-income families earning up to $45,000 per year.

This legislation will also make additional funding available for emergency grants and home weatherization improvements for low-income families, seniors and people with disabilities. Weatherization will help stretch energy dollars this winter by helping families to use less heat to stay warm.

Back in August my colleagues and I called on Congress to increase this funding. We also proposed a large-scale weatherization program like the ones used in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut for the past 10 years to help people make home improvements that would reduce energy use. We also proposed a plan to provide benefits for middle-income families that would be paid for through the sale of carbon credits. The Home Energy Assistance Programs are a short-term fix to help people pay their bills, while the weatherization program can have long term benefits.

These measures did not pass, but the governor did come through with some additional funding for certain weatherization programs and a proposal to increase LIHEAP benefits. We need to continue looking toward the future to build our economy through alternative energy sources including biofuels and nuclear energy to bring jobs here, while also working for long term solutions to save money on home energy bills.

In the meantime, the LIHEAP program offers short term assistance to help so many families make ends meet this winter. I call on the president, like Congress, to recognize this need and make this funding available.