Political coalition to Gov. Baker: Add $30M to heating-assistance program

As Reported by Dick Lindsay, The Berkshire Eagle:

Gov. Charlie Baker should kick in $30 million in state money to help struggling households pay their heating bills this winter.

That was the message from a coalition of more than 70 state representatives and senators, including several Berkshire lawmakers.

The group has written a letter asking Baker to include the money in the fiscal 2019 supplemental budget — funding to help cover the state’s $11 million shortfall from the federal Low Income Heating Assistance Program.

“We’re cautiously optimistic the governor will release the money,” state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, told The Eagle.

Berkshire state Rep. Paul Mark and Berkshire state Sen. Adam Hinds also signed the letter.

LIHEAP provides aid to about 8,000 Berkshire households, according to the Berkshire Community Action Council, which distributes the money. In all, 160,000 individuals and families across the commonwealth will rely on the fuel assistance this winter, according to state officials.

The LIHEAP cuts announced in early December came after the Trump administration twice had tried to eliminate the program funding completely in its past two proposed federal budgets. The president cited widespread fraud in the program, without offering any evidence to support his claims.

As a result, the state will only receive $136.5 million — $11.2 million less than last winter. Overall, funding for the LIHEAP program was increased nationally by nearly $50 million, to $3.65 billion.

Hinds said he supports the $30 million request, given that many local LIHEAP recipients have had a rough start to the heating season.

“We were advised by the Berkshire Community Action Council (BCAC) in early December that some LIHEAP clients had already exhausted their benefits, and we still have weeks of bitterly cold winter weather to face,” Hinds said in a statement. “I am anxious to see a supplemental budget from the Administration that contains this important funding.”

LIHEAP recipients paid more than expected to heat their homes and apartments, according to BCAC, due to some unseasonably cold weather from November to mid-December. The National Weather Service in Albany, N.Y., noted that temperatures during that six- to seven-week period were an average of 3 degrees below normal.

After a roller-coaster ride of warm and cold temperatures since then, a consistently cold stretch has settled in with an arctic blast due by Monday, with daytime highs in the single digits.

In order to qualify for aid from the LIHEAP program, BCAC officials say the net income for a household of one person can’t exceed $35,510. For a family of two, it would qualify for heating aid if it made less than $46,437. A family of three bringing in less than $57,363 would qualify for heating aid, and a household of four would receive aid if income is less than $68,289.

LIHEAP money is distributed to the states through block grants. Each state decides how to administer and distribute that money.

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