Malloy takes heat on energy assistance plan
Proposal: Some electric, gas users could be left in cold
Concerns are mounting over Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposal to address a reduction in low income federal heating assistance by restricting payments to oil customers only, shutting out electric and gas users.
It remains to be seen if the governor's fellow Democrats in the General Assembly, critical of past Republican efforts to tighten eligibility requirements, will insist on maintaining higher benefit levels even if it means the cash-strapped state somehow foots the bill.
Every year in the late summer, the governor submits a proposal to the Human Services, Energy and Appropriations committees and to the Low Income Energy Advisory Board to divvy up Connecticut's share of federal heating aid dollars.
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama recommended a major reduction to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, leaving Connecticut officials, who spent more than $115 million in federal money last winter, with an estimated budget of less than $50 million for 2011-12.
The Malloy administration last week unveiled a proposal to focus the dollars on homes heated by oil and propane deliveries. Officials reason that state law prevents electric and gas suppliers from shutting off delinquent customers between Nov. 1 and May 1, but fuel oil customers who rely on deliveries do not enjoy that protection.
"The administration's plan is a realistic approach in view of the deep cuts expected in federal funding," said Roderick Bremby, Malloy's social services commissioner. "These families and individuals are most at risk of freezing this winter."
But that approach, others argue, has serious consequences.
"I think there's substance to the (governor's) rationale you're able to keep more people heated during the season," said Rep. Bruce Morris, D-Norwalk, a Human Services Committee vice chairman. "My concern would be those who have electric heat and are not covered during this period of time will be in greater debt in the spring."
Brenda Kelley, director of AARP Connecticut, said senior citizens in particular will be affected by the eligibility limits.
"Even if they have shut off protection, that's not how our members think," Kelley said. "What they'll see is a looming bill at the end of the year." She said some seniors will keep their heat too low or forgo medication and food to pay for it.
Patricia Wrice is director of Operation Fuel Inc., a Bloomfield-based safety net for individuals who do not qualify for LIHEAP. Wrice, who also sits on the Low Income Energy Advisory Board, said there is no way Operation Fuel, which is mostly privately funded, has the resources to make up for the loss of aid to electric and gas users.
"We're an emergency program," Wrice said.
Former Rep. Steve Fontana, D-North Haven, who lost his re-election bid last November, is a former Energy Committee chairman. Fontana said ex-Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell a few years ago offered a proposal similar to Malloy's, shifting LIHEAP funds from electric and gas users to heating oil consumers.
"It's an understandable approach but overly simplistic and overlooks the fact our heating assistance has been based on need and income and not fuel source," Fontana said. "You're saying we're going to distinctly disadvantage one large population of people ... in favor of another. In the past we rejected that notion."
Democrats on the three legislative committees usually have opted to avoid major eligibility changes to LIHEAP, instead promising to use future surplus money or budget cuts to cover shortfalls. And Washington lawmakers have come through and released more heating aid than anticipated.
But, Ben Barnes, Malloy's budget director, said this year's LIHEAP cut is so steep that if the same benefit levels are maintained, the state will run out by November, in part because oil prices are anticipated to reach $4 a gallon.
"We'd have to stop giving out assistance," Barnes said. "We have to be realistic with the resources we have today."
Considering the current mood in Congress, Wrice said, Connecticut might even get less than the anticipated $50 million. She said lawmakers should be proactive and put some state revenues on the table now, while the weather is warm.
Though Malloy inherited a $3 billion-plus deficit when he took office in January, the state comptroller this month reported a $236.9 million surplus. However, that money has been committed to paying future retiree health care and 2009 borrowing obligations.
Barnes said even if state lawmakers somehow found the money now to provide more heating aid, it would undermine ongoing efforts to lobby Washington to come up with additional LIHEAP funds for the winter.
"We have more limited resources than the federal government," Barnes said.
Staff Writer Brian Lockhart can be reached at email@example.com.