Republicans and Democrats joined forces in the House on Tuesday to ensure Minnesotans stay warm through one of the coldest winters in decades.
The brutal weather, along with a propane shortage, has almost drained Minnesota’s low-income heating assistance program. When the Minnesota Legislature gaveled back into session Tuesday afternoon, the first item on the agenda was a $20 million emergency appropriation for the state’s depleted Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps needy families pay their heating bills.
With temperatures outside barely above zero, lawmakers unanimously agreed to shift the money out of the general fund. The low-income heating assistance program could run out of money as early as next week.
“I’m really proud that the House unanimously acted today,” Speaker Paul Thissen said. “It’s not an issue we ought to be playing any games with, because the alternative is leaving people out in the cold. So I hope the Senate acts very quickly as well.”
The emergency assistance vote started the 2014 session on a bipartisan note as members agreed both to help with the short-term crisis and to take a long, hard look at the propane situation to avoid such dramatic price swings in the future.
“We know that Minnesotans need this and are relying on this kind of emergency money,” said Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. “We certainly don’t want to hold that up. It’s my understanding that the state will run out of the federal funds next week if we don’t take action soon.”
Gov. Mark Dayton urged the Legislature to act quickly on the emergency aid bill, but while the Senate raised the issue, it did not act.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, told Senate members that the chamber may act on that bill on Monday.
Dayton had already moved to expand eligibility for the heating assistance program, raising the income requirement from 50 percent of poverty to 60 percent — which would open the program to families earning less than $52,370 for a family of four. The Commerce Department estimates that 30,000 to 40,000 newly eligible Minnesotans will apply for help, further draining the fund.
The federal government steered an extra $15.8 million to Minnesota earlier this week to compensate for spiking propane prices, and the governor has asked for more.
The state also set up a toll-free hot line for Minnesotans affected by this winter’s propane shortage: 1-800-657-3504 in greater Minnesota or 651-297-1304 in the Twin Cities.
“When we get hotline calls, people are calling in fear and desperation,” state Department of Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman told members of the House Ways and Means Committee at an informational meeting Tuesday.
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report.