Monday, October 10, 2005

Kerry Still Plugging for Energy Assistance for the Poor

Earlier today, I posted a thread about the defeat of the Kerry Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) Amendment last Thursday. AP News is reporting that John Kerry is not letting this rest. It's unthinkable to me, that Republicans do not see the need to increase funds for energy program to help the poor pay their heating bills when heating bills are expected to increase about 47 % this winter.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said last week that additional money was "not on the agenda." However, department spokesman Craig Stevens said Monday, "I think it's an option on the table."

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., says the program's impact is diminishing because funding has not kept up with rising fuel prices.

Kerry unsuccessfully tried to attach an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill last week that called for increasing funding to $5.1 billion.

"It is critical ... to avoid a looming but absolutely preventable crisis for millions of American families," Kerry said.

Stephen Nocilla, director of Catholic Social Services in Scranton, Pa., said he's worried about the impact of higher energy prices on poor families in Northeast Pennsylvania. He's making plans with local officials to open up more emergency shelters this winter.

"This is a life-and-death situation," Nocilla said. "People are going to have to make some very difficult choices."

The American Gas Association, which represents utilities, also supports more money for the program, which serves 5 million households.

"It really is an acute situation," said Peggy Laramie, the association's spokeswoman. "It's an opening for Congress to do something for people who shouldn't have to choose between heating their homes or feeding their families, or buying their prescription drugs."

Kerry, citing Energy Department estimates, projected that families in the Midwest face a 69 percent to 77 percent increase in the price of natural gas, and a 39 percent to 43 percent increase for propane. Families in the South could expect a 17 percent to 18 percent increase in their electricity bills, and families in the Northeast could face a 29 percent to 33 percent increase in the price of heating oil, he said.

The program is run by the Administration for Children and Families, part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

HHS released a statement Monday that kept the door open to all funding options.

"We are closely monitoring the situation in the context of Katrina recovery," the agency said. "We will work with the Congress if we determine further amounts are needed."

Congress appropriated $2.2 billion for the program during the latest fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. President Bush has called for spending $2 billion on the program in fiscal year 2006. But that recommendation was made before oil prices skyrocketed and before hundreds of thousands lost their jobs as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

Congress authorized a significant increase in funding — to $5.1 billion — when it passed a comprehensive energy bill this summer. Ironically, that's about the amount that would be needed to hold recipients harmless from higher fuel prices this winter.

However, funding would only increase if Congress approves it through an appropriations bill.

About 20 states have moratoriums that prevent utility companies from shutting off the heat in the winter, officials said. Some states also fund programs to help the poor pay their utilities.

UPDATE: My sources tell me that with the Republicans blocking Kerry's latest effort with the LIHEAP Amendment it may be a while before the opportunity arises to attach the amendment to another appropriations bill. Look for Kerry to raise this issue with the next appropriations bill and no doubt, note that he WILL stay vocal on this issue.


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