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February 14, 2024

CT legislators to consider adding $13.5M for winter heating assistance

STEPHEN BUSEMEYER / CT MIRROR Lawmakers will consider emergency legislation to fund heating assistance programs in CT.

The General Assembly will consider emergency legislation Wednesday to spend $13.5 million to meet surging demand in winter energy assistance programs, top lawmakers announced late Tuesday.

The measure will designate $10 million for the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program, the state’s primary winter heating assistance service, and another $3.5 million for Operation Fuel, a Hartford-based energy assistance nonprofit.

Gov. Ned Lamont, who has been wary of using state funds to replace diminishing federal aid for energy assistance, indicated through a spokesman late Tuesday that he would support the measure.

CEAP, which is administered by the state Department of Social Services, distributes federal Low Income Household Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funds and is facing severe cutbacks. Congress rolled back LIHEAP funding this year to pre-pandemic levels. Connecticut has about $85 million to distribute this winter — well below the $110 million-plus it awarded last year and the smallest amount since the winter of 2018-19.

“We have a responsibility to the people who live in this state, and if Congress isn’t going to put more money in, we need to ensure folks stay warm this winter,” said Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford, co-chair of the Human Services Committee.

“We really have no choice,” said Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, the panel’s other co-chair. “Folks aren’t going to make it through the winter otherwise.”

More than 70,280 households have been approved for CEAP benefits this winter through Jan. 27, according to Department of Social Services records. That’s up 10% from last winter.

State social services officials estimated last August that the maximum amount the poorest household could receive was $1,350, based on available federal funds. That’s down almost $1,000 from last year’s top benefit, while many other families stand to receive hundreds of dollars less than they did last winter.

And while CEAP primarily distributes federal funds, Connecticut’s Low-Income Energy Advisory Board, which includes representatives from state government, the AARP, energy distributors and social services agencies, urged the legislature to supplement the program with state dollars this winter.

Entering the heating season last fall, the advisory board asked for state funds matching 20% of the federal LIHEAP funding, or about $17 million.

Nora Duncan, vice chairwoman of the advisory board and state director of the AARP, said the panel appreciates the assistance legislators are considering Wednesday, adding that advocates fear many Connecticut households already have exhausted their heating benefits with more than two to three months of cold weather still to go this year.

The advisory board is scheduled to accept public comments at its meeting Wednesday, which is set for 1:30 p.m. in the Legislative Office Building and also can be attended remotely via Zoom.

Operation Fuel also has been facing heavy demand since it opened its winter energy assistance program on Jan. 8. About 3,000 applications were received during the first four weeks, well above normal demand, said Gannon Long, the chief program officer.

The $13.5 million legislators will assign for energy assistance will be drawn from unexpended federal coronavirus pandemic relief grant funds.

The state received $2.8 billion from Congress through the American Rescue Plan Act, which was enacted in late 2021. Connecticut must assign uses for all unexpended ARPA dollars by Dec. 31.

Legislators recently pressed Lamont’s budget office for an estimate on total ARPA funds not yet spent and were told Executive Branch agencies are still calculating that number.

Advocates for more funding for winter energy assistance have noted Connecticut has other resources it could draw upon. The Lamont administration estimates that Connecticut’s budget for the current fiscal year will close June 30 about $645 million in the black.

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, has been calling for more aggressive state intervention in heating assistance for the past two years. And Tuesday he called the new supplemental appropriation too little and too late.

“Democrats took a wait-and-see approach to this crisis when lives have been in the balance, and this is their solution? A Band-Aid?” Kelly said “These are seniors on fixed income, the disabled, and children in need. They are being forced to make impossible decisions.  Should I heat my home or pay my mortgage? Should I use my oven to keep my kitchen warm? These are choices no family should ever have to make.”

Lamont, a fiscal moderate, has been wary of using state funds to enhance the CEAP program, raising two arguments against it.

First, the administration has said, winter energy assistance is supposed to help but is not guaranteed to meet all households’ needs. It also noted winter energy assistance primarily has been a federal budget responsibility, not one of state government.

But the governor’s budget spokesman, Chris Collibee, said late Tuesday that the administration has been working with legislators and agreed to a one-time use of federal ARPA dollars.

“While not every area of need can be a priority, the legislature has chosen to prioritize this assistance, and the administration will ensure this aid reaches families in need,” Collibee said.

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said Tuesday that state legislators recognize Connecticut’s delegation on Capitol Hill has fought hard for a greater federal investment in energy assistance. But officials here cannot ignore that the recent trend in Washington has been to curb funding.

“In a perfect world, this should be seen as an American responsibility, and the feds would pay for it,” Ritter said. “But that didn’t happen.”

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