CHN: Increased Authorization Sought for LIHEAP Program
Proposal Follows Cut in Funding Last Year
Language increasing the annual authorization level for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) was included in bankruptcy legislation (S. 420), which was passed by the Senate on March 15 by a vote of 83-15. The House version of the bill (H.R. 333), which was passed on March 1, does not contain similar language. Differences between the two bills must now be resolved in a House-Senate conference.
LIHEAP is the federal government’s primary source of energy assistance for the poor. In FY 1999, the most recent year for which data is available, the program provided regular heating assistance to 3.4 million recipients and winter crisis aid to 748,000 recipients. It also provided regular summer cooling assistance to 480,000 households and summer crisis aid to 194,000 households. The average heating benefit in FY 1998 was $213.
While LIHEAP assistance is significant, it is not enough. The LIHEAP Coalition, an alliance of organizations that support LIHEAP funding, estimates that only about 13 percent of eligible families actually receive LIHEAP assistance, down from 36 percent in 1981. Recent surveys indicate that in 1999, when heating bills were unaffordable, roughly 21-25 percent of LIHEAP recipients went without medical care and 12-13 percent went without food so they could cover their energy costs.
Unfortunately, last December President Clinton was forced to sign legislation containing $1.7 billion in funding for the program in FY 2001 after a protracted last-minute budget fight with Congress. The amount represented a cut of $300 million from the $2 billion appropriated for the previous fiscal year. Energy advocates are worried that in the face of sharply escalating energy prices, the current level of funding will result in a significant reduction in assistance at a time of heightened need. In recent months the price of crude oil has reached $34.90 per barrel, the highest since the build up to the Persian Gulf War in November, 1990. The Department of Energy estimates that home heating oil prices could be 30 percent higher this winter than last, and that natural gas prices could be 40 percent higher.
The LIHEAP language in the bankruptcy bill, offered by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and adopted in the Senate by voice vote on March 8, increases the authorized level of program spending from $2 billion to $3.4 billion through FY 2005. It also expands eligibility for the program from recipients at or below 150 percent of the poverty level to those who or at or below 200 percent of the poverty level. The eligibility expansion would only apply to the current fiscal year but could be extended in subsequent years. The Bingaman language does not actually increase the annual appropriation for the program, however. LIHEAP receives its funding through the annual Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill.
If the Bingaman amendment is stripped from the bankruptcy bill it could still reemerge later this year. Earlier this year, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Frank Murkowski (R-AK) introduced energy legislation that would increase the annual authorization level for LIHEAP from $2 billion to $3 billion. Murkowski’s proposal has drawn fire from environmentalists who are concerned about other provisions in it that would open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilli