Democratic News

Sen. Bingaman has joined a bipartisan group of senators seeking emergency funding for a program that helps needy families, senior citizens and others on fixed incomes pay their home utility bills. The winter heating season is nearing and it is urgent that funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program be increased, Bingaman believes. "LIHEAP is a safety net for millions of Americans who struggle to pay to heat and cool their homes," he said. "For the poorest consumer, increases in home utility bills can be catastrophic. While they consume less home energy than others, and have lower bills, their incomes are so low that every dollar paid for utility costs threatens their ability to put food on the table, buy medicine or pay the rent. With home energy costs likely to be high again this winter, it seems certain that fewer Americans will be helped unless Congress votes to add more funding to this program." With that in mind, Bingaman and 35 other senators have asked key Senate appropriators to set aside $600 million in emergency funding for LIHEAP in the FY2004 Supplemental Appropriations bill or another appropriations bill that can be signed by the President by Oct. 1. (The FY2005 appropriation for LIHEAP has not yet passed the Senate and is not likely to become law before the beginning of the winter.) Here’s the letter: Dear Chairman Stevens and Ranking Member Byrd: Americans are facing record high prices for oil, natural gas and propane this winter. These increases come on top of soaring energy prices over the past several years. Rising energy prices disproportionately burden low-income Americans who are also struggling to pay for higher food, housing and health care costs. As the Committee completes its work on the fiscal 2005 regular appropriation and supplemental appropriations bills, we urge you to include $600 million in emergency funds for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to aid seniors and low-income families affected by the diminishing affordability of home energy. This situation warrants the provision of emergency LIHEAP funding in an appropriations bill that will be signed shortly as it may be our last opportunity to act before the winter cold sets in. The Energy Information Administration is forecasting that heating a home with natural gas will cost an average of $1010 this winter; heating with oil will cost $1114; and, heating with propane will cost $1335. These predicted increases come on top of soaring energy prices over the past several years. Compared to average heating costs from 1998 to 2000, expenditures this winter are expected to be 49 percent higher for natural gas, 48 percent higher for heating oil, and 38 percent higher for propane. Families are facing an energy emergency that requires an immediate response. Without emergency assistance, these families will face impossible choices this winter between heating their homes or eating, or buying prescription drugs, or paying their rent or mortgage. Unfortunately, these are the real choices that face low-income families, disabled Americans and seniors when energy prices are unaffordable. But, these choices can be prevented if Congress provides the aid needed to address this emergency. The current rise in energy prices, along with energy debt remaining from last winter, are leading to increased disconnections and arrears among consumers as the winter heating season begins – threatening the well-being of families and seniors. Emergency funding is needed immediately to help low-income families and seniors restore disconnected utility service before the start of the winter heating season and to ensure affordable heat for their homes. Stories across the country illustrate the need for this assistance. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that 25,000 customers in the We Energies service area are currently disconnected and that number is expected to growth to 70,000 by the end of the year. In Pennsylvania, customer utility debt rose 5 percent in the first 6 months of 2004 to a record $564 million. In Iowa, the Energy Office is reporting that as of July 2004, 161,390 accounts are past due with 46,599 accounts issued disconnection notices. In Maine, the State received 45,700 applications for assistance last year, but expects at least 60,000 requests this coming winter, and the statewide average price for heating oil is currently at $1.63 per gallon, a $0.38 increase above early October of last year. In Rhode Island, home heating oil was selling at an average price of $1.71 a gallon this week, which is the most expensive heating oil has been in the 14 years that the state has tracked oil prices. We recognize the difficult budget constraints that the Committee faces but we believe the winter heating crisis facing low-income Americans warrants the provision of emergency LIHEAP assistance. Thank you for your consideration. Sincerely, Reed, Collins, Kennedy, Dodd, Dayton, Levin, Bingaman, Lugar, Lautenberg, Daschle, Rockefeller, Kohl, Murray, Snowe, Pryor, Feingold, Leahy, Wyden, Mikulski, Alexander, Bayh, Corzine, Breaux, DeWine, Lieberman, Voinovich, Chafee, Baucus, Biden, Stabenow, Sarbanes, Kerry, Jeffords, Schumer, Clinton, Nelson (NE)