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Heating Assistance Program A Political Football Once Again in Washington, D.C.
01/06/2014   Reported By: Mal Leary

As the severe cold keeps a grip on New England and other northern states, Maine’s two Senators say there are efforts underway to get an emergency supplemental appropriation for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance program, also known as LIHEAP. But it will be a tough battle just to assure the basic LIHEAP program is continued and funded at current levels.

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The LIHEAP program has long been controversial. Most of the aid goes to cold weather states, although southern states do get some help for relief from those scorching summer days. And Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins said President Obama has never been a fan.

“He seems to cut it virtually every year in his budget, last year we were successful in increasing the level back to what it had been of $3.4 billion but unfortunately sequestration came along and cut it back,” said Collins.

But with the severe cold weather hitting the northern half of the country, Collins said there will be an effort to garner additional funds this winter when she and other members of Congress get back to Washington.

“Given how severe this winter has been and how terribly cold it has been, that imposes a real hardship on our low income elderly who are often living in these older homes that are not well insulated,” said Collins.

Independent Sen. Angus King said the weather so far this winter has severely diminished the value of the LiHeAP benefits for Maine’s poor that rely on the program to help pay their heating bills.

“This week in Maine has been one of the coldest I can recall," said King. "You know, when the high of the day is two, that’s a pretty cold winter. Yeah, we are going to have to work on getting some extra money.”

And King share’s Collins concern that some members of Congress will not support additional aid. He said the attitude in Congress seems at times self-centered and fails to consider what is best for the nation as a whole.

“There has been in the past a kind of you help us when New Orleans gets hit by a storm and we will help you when you have a cold winter," King said. "Some of that has broken down in recent years. There were a number of people, for example, that didn’t vote for the super storm Sandy relief.”

Collins said as the appropriations bill for LIHEAP is considered, she'll seek additional funds for weatherization efforts, which she said have a lasting effect on improving energy efficiency.

“We need to look at the balance between weatherization and low income heating assistance," Collins said. "If we could weatherize more homes in Maine, those LiHeAP dollars would go so much further. Because right now too many of them are going out leaky windows and un-insulated attics.”

King agreed that only makes sense to weatherize homes so they use less energy. He said it's a strategy that benefits low income families as well as the government.

“It’s much better to have people use less heat, use less energy, and still you know enjoy a warm house. In the long run, that helps everybody," King said. "It helps them and helps the government help on the energy bills.”

Both Senators said work will begin in Washington next week to create a coalition of lawmakers to push for both immediate additional aid as well as continuation of the program for the next budget year. But they say whatever plan is worked out in the Senate will also need house support, and that means it will have to be fully paid for.

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