As Reported by Chris Lisinski, State House News:
Additional $15M In New State Heating Aid Sought
Thousands of Massachusetts families risk running out of heating oil this winter without additional assistance from the state, an advocate warned Wednesday as lawmakers began pushing for new funding to augment federal aid.
Almost two dozen lawmakers signed onto letters this week calling on Democratic leaders in both branches to include a $15 million increase in low-income heating aid when they take up a mid-year spending bill.
The Legislature and administration have often supplemented the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program with state dollars amid a steady decrease in federal support. Supporters argued a latest round is urgent as elderly residents, families with children and others in need face the threat of losing heat with weeks of cold weather remaining.
“Without additional resources from the state, we are unable to help those thousands that right now don’t have money for oil delivery, and they have nowhere else to turn,” Citizens for Citizens Deputy Director Elizabeth Berube said during a Wednesday policy briefing.
Some Massachusetts households received only $500 to $700 to pay for an entire season’s worth of heat, according to Berube. Families that cannot afford oil refills often turn to risky alternatives or make compromises that leave them unable to address other needs, she said.
“Without the fuel assistance program, elderly trade medical care for heat. Families trade food for heat. Elderly and families use dangerous alternative heating approaches such as open ovens or unsafe use of space heaters,” Berube said. “The bottom line: fuel assistance saves lives.”
Federal aid to Massachusetts for the LIHEAP program has decreased significantly in recent years, from about $200 million to $130 million, senators warned in their letter to leadership.
In January 2019, Gov. Charlie Baker asked the Legislature to approve an $11 million allocation to offset that year’s decrease in federal funding.
Lawmakers instead approved spending $30 million on the program, but Baker — who has authority over how much of the funding to deploy — at first released only $11 million to close out the cold season during fiscal year 2019 with plans to use the remainder for fiscal year 2020.
The administration later increased the fiscal 2019 release to $19 million following pushback from advocates and legislators, and rolled over the $11 million remaining from the Legislature’s 2019 allocation into this heating season, along with $10.9 million in unused federal funds awarded in fiscal 2019.
Some lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, launched a push this week to seek another $15 million. Supporters circulated letters to their colleagues asking for signatures, planning to file the correspondence with Ways and Means Committee chairs in both branches.
The funding, they said, should be added to a supplemental budget (H 4285) Baker filed in January. Lawmakers involved have the backing of several groups, including the Massachusetts Association for Community Action, which hosted Wednesday’s briefing and awards ceremony.
“An immediate allocation of $15 million is crucial to allow households to make it through the winter,” senators wrote in their letter. “The timing is critical as winter is upon us, but there are still two months remaining in the primary heating season.”
House Speaker Robert DeLeo told the News Service that it is premature to say whether the House will support the specific $15 million funding request. However, he criticized the federal government for the years of rolled-back funding and said he has long supported LIHEAP as a critical program.
“One of the things which I had mentioned to my colleagues on a number of occasions that on my watch as speaker, I was never going to see someone who, because of their particular financial condition or whatever it might be, is not able to feel safe or secure or, most importantly, stay alive in some cases because of lack of funding for heat,” DeLeo said.
During the MASSCAP award ceremony ahead of Berube’s briefing, Tarr — who along with DeLeo, Rep. Paul Donato and Sen. Michael Rodrigues was honored by the group — said lawmakers in both parties have prioritized various programs to help the state’s most vulnerable residents.
“As we see uncertainty around LIHEAP and home heating, we don’t have uncertainty in the commonwealth of Massachusetts because we work together to say that’s one of those things that just cannot be inconsistent,” Tarr said.