Heating aid among items slashed in Obama's budget

  • Article by: JEREMY HERB
  • Star Tribune
  • February 14, 2011 - 10:08 PM

WASHINGTON - Ruth Ann Adams is just the kind of person the federal energy assistance program is designed to help through the winter months.

The 72-year-old Stillwater resident is legally blind, has a fixed income through Social Security and gets help with her energy bill through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

But on Monday, President Obama proposed cutting $2.5 billion from the $5.1 billion program. The state Commerce Department estimates that 44,000 Minnesota households could lose federal energy assistance.

"It's been very important because if I didn't have that, I wouldn't be able to pay my energy bill," said Adams. "It's scary. ... I really don't know where I'd go."

Minnesota would receive $67 million less in base funding if the program's budget were rolled back to 2008 levels, as Obama has proposed. Through January, the state received $150 million in federal funds to cover the 151,000 households that applied for assistance. The state has seen a 5 percent rise in applications from last year.

The Obama administration cited oil and energy prices that remain below 2008 peak levels as one reason to trim the program. But Democrats in Congress -- as well as some Republicans -- are pushing back against the president's proposed cuts.

"It is morally repugnant to me to do something like this," said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. "We tell the richest Americans we can extend your massive tax cuts, and then we tell poor Americans to get an extra blanket at the Goodwill."

A bipartisan group of 31 senators drafted a letter Friday urging that the energy assistance program be spared in anticipation of the president's $3.73 trillion budget released Monday.

"There are a number of things in the president's budget that made a lot of sense, but I completely disagree with the proposal to cut funds for LIHEAP," said Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. "These cuts will be devastating for a lot of Minnesotans, and I'm going to fight them."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said the proposal disproportionately harms cold-weather states. "These funds are critical to helping thousands of families keep their heat on during the peak of winter," she said.

Minnesota's four congressional Republicans all declined to comment.

Cutting back aid

LIHEAP is a federally funded program that is locally administered, with grants that average about $500 per household in Minnesota per year, paid directly to energy companies to cover heating bills.

Minnesotans who can't pay their energy bills are at least spared during the cold winter months because state law prevents companies from turning off the heat.

The program's administrators say that rising unemployment has added to the number of people applying for heating assistance for the first time and many remain on the program if they can't find work.

"These aren't the same people," said Catherine Fair, director of the Ramsey-Washington County Community Action Partnership, which administers the grants in those counties.

Bill Davis, president and CEO of Community Action of Minneapolis, said one potential way to handle the budget blow would be to shrink the average grant to each household, which already dropped to $500 this year from $600.

That's exactly the scenario that worries Adams, who already keeps her thermostat low and layers up throughout the winter.

"It's just so exasperating," she said. "I wouldn't be able to afford it."

Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723

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