States Grapple with Funding Issues, Some Look to State Legislatures
As the impact of government spending cuts due to the sequester continues to unravel, the status of LIHEAP across the country varies considerably. Some states ran out of money early this heating season, others still have money as they approach their application deadlines, and one state has extended its LIHEAP.
In some states where the need for assistance remains, legislatures are considering allocating dollars to supplement LIHEAP.
In late February, Idaho announced the closing of its LIHEAP, more than a month earlier than usual, after expending all of its $17 million. The program served over 41,200 households. However, Community Action Partnership Association of Idaho, which administers LIHEAP locally, said there was greater need this year and more than twice that number of households could have been served had funding been available. Likewise, Oklahoma expended all of its regular LIHEAP funds by late February, and was opening its crisis component effective March 26.
Some state programs, like Ohio and Minnesota, will remain open until May31 and were still taking applications as of late March. Administrators in Minnesota reported applications for heating assistance are down about 9 percent this year, which was partially attributed to moderate fuel prices in the region.
Towards the end of March, Pennsylvania announced it was extending its LIHEAP another month, until April 26. Governor Tom Corbett announced the state had received over 485,000 applications for regular LIHEAP, in addition to over 86,000 for the crisis program.
In Vermont, Governor Peter Shumlin announced that the state's crisis assistance component would run out on March 1 and that the program needed $900,000 in state funds. As of mid-February, the program had already served 4,500 households, compared to 7,200 last year. Shumlin said he was committed to finding additional funding. While that money has yet to appear, the Vermont House passed a budget bill at the end of March that includes $6 million to supplement LIHEAP next year, which the governor had proposed in his initial budget. (The state already provided $6 million to LIHEAP earlier this year.)
Advocates in Massachusetts are also asking the state legislature to appropriate funds to supplement low-income energy assistance. In late February, the Massachusetts Association for Community Action asked lawmakers to approve $20 million in aid, as it did last year. The association reported that many income-eligible recipients had already used up their assistance benefits due to higher prices for heating oil and colder weather this year.
Nationally, many state LIHEAP programs made strategic decisions going into this heating season by anticipating they might not receive all the funding allocated to them, due to the pending sequester. At the annual meeting of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association (NEADA) in late February, most attendees reported that, based on this expectation, they had lowered their benefits going into the season. Most programs reported having received about 90 percent of their expected 2013 allocations, but they recognized the sequester would likely determine whether they received the remaining 10 percent.
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Ratepayer-Funded Programs Established for Low-Income Vermonters
After more than two decades of work by advocates, legislators, and utility companies, most low-income Vermont ratepayers will have access to discounts on their gas and electric bills. New laws and rulings by the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) over the past few years are providing some much-needed relief.
In May 2009, AARP filed a petition asking the PSB to create a program for reduced rates for low-income electric customers. The basis for the petition was the new authority given to the PSB in Act 92. AARP proposed a 25 percent discount and retirement of any arrearages for customers at or below 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines. It also recommended funding the discount through a surcharge on all ratepayers of Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service Corp (the two merged into one company, Green Mountain, in June 2012). At the time of AARP's petition, the two companies served over 70 percent of electrical ratepayers in the state.
The PSB didn't end up recommending the specific AARP proposal. However, it used the proposal to establish the components required for the new program. These included: a monthly rate discount of 25 percent; eligibility based on household income up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level; and a funding mechanism based on a fixed, per-meter charge for all of the companies' ratepayers.
As of July 2011, it was estimated that the two companies had over 36,000 residential customers that would be eligible for the new program. Estimates also predicted that the surcharge would generate about $7 to $8 million annually.
The Green Mountain Energy Assistance Program went into effect December 15, 2012. Eligible households (up to 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines) can receive a 25 percent discount off their monthly bills, which results in a potential savings of about $300 per year. Applicants who apply by March 15, 2013, will receive one-time arrearage forgiveness.
As of February 1, the state LIHEAP office, the Department of Children and Families (DCF), which screens and verifies applicants, had already processed 4,300 applications and determined 2,800 were eligible for the program.
In addition to electric customers, low-income natural gas users will be getting some relief effective July 1, 2013. In 2012, the Vermont Legislature passed H 730 requiring the PSB to make regulated gas suppliers provide discounts to low-income customers through a ratepayer program. The PSB issued its order to Vermont Gas Systems (the only PSB-regulated gas utility) in January 2013.
The order created the Low-Income Assistance Program, or LIAP. Eligible customers with incomes no greater than 185 percent of the federal poverty level or who meet DCF's means test for LIHEAP crisis assistance will receive a 20 percent discount on their gas bill. DCF will verify eligibility. The program will be funded by a fee based on a percentage of meter usage and assessed monthly on all customers' bills. It's estimated that over 7,500 of Vermont Gas' residential customers are eligible for LIAP.
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LOW INCOME ENERGY PUBLICATIONS
Manufactured Homes: State-Based Programs May Provide Benefits, but Energy Savings do Not Fully Offset Costs, General Accounting Office, March 2013. The report examines pilot programs in Maine, Montana, and Washington that replaced older manufactured homes with newer ones. It found newer homes didn't save enough energy during a typical loan period to cover the replacement costs. However, the report also notes that the pilot programs focused on the health and welfare of occupants, while energy efficiency was a secondary goal.
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