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March 13, 2023

State money for heating assistance unspent; deadline extended

HBJ FILE PHOTO The state Capitol building.

The state will extend a key deadline for seeking winter heating assistance from March 15 to March 31, Gov. Ned Lamont announced Friday.

But the administration also confirmed — less than two weeks before the official start of spring — that it hasn’t yet spent any of the $30 million in state funds legislators committed last November to enhance heating assistance.

“While it has been a relatively mild winter so far, we still have several weeks to go before warmer weather takes hold,” Lamont said. “We have the ability to provide households with a slight extension to the period required to get deliverable fuel into their tanks for this winter season.”

The governor was referring to the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program, which provides financial aid to low-income households during the winter heating season.

Though administered by the state, CEAP traditionally is funded exclusively with federal grants from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, commonly known as LIHEAP.

Connecticut received about $106 million from LIHEAP for this winter and pooled it with $6 million in unused federal funds it carried forward from the winter of 2021-22.

But Republican legislative leaders and energy assistance advocates argued last fall that these resources were far too little to keep many low- and middle-income families from sacrificing food and medicine this winter to keep their homes from freezing.

Lamont and his fellow Democrats in the legislature’s majority agreed in special session late last November to commit another $30 million in state funding to CEAP, with the condition that federal funds would be spent first.

Given those added resources, state social services officials in late December increased the maximum benefit a household could receive by $430, from $1,890 to $2.320.

Critics countered that still was too modest and questioned whether the benefit increase was kept modest to ensure state funds wouldn’t be spent.

This winter’s $2,320 maximum benefit isn’t even half of the $4,825 peak support CEAP offered last winter. That 2021-22 program was an outlier, though, enhanced with emergency federal pandemic relief to help families adjusting to the expiration of enhanced federal unemployment benefits and tax credits, also ordered during the worst of the coronavirus outbreak.

But it’s also will below the $2,980 peak relief level granted two years ago.

There have been factors that have tempered demand this winter, including mild temperatures.

The entire month of January in Connecticut didn’t feature one day during which the high temperature was below freezing, Darren Sweeney, meteorologist for NBC Connecticut in West Hartford, told the CT Mirror last week. 

And the average temperature this February was two degrees warmer than that of February 2022, he added.

Home heating oil prices were sky-high shortly before the winter began but have dropped steadily as the season has progressed.

The average retail price in Connecticut stood at $5.93 per gallon during the first week of November, according to state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection records. That was $2.60 or 78% higher than the same week in 2021.

But by Feb. 20 of this year, they had dipped below $4 per gallon and stood at $3.98 entering March.

Still, legislative leaders from both parties said they’re certain that the need for assistance remains high across Connecticut — and also that legislators didn’t allocate $30 million in state resources in November with the intent that those dollars remain unspent.

“When the smoke clears, we’re going to see there are many more families that are falling into poverty because of the high fuel costs,” said House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford. 

“I think it looks horrible,” said Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford. “The last thing I wanted to see happen was the $30 million we are giving to help people in need go unused. … We are talking about seniors. We are talking about kids in poverty.”

Republicans tried during the Nov. 28 special session to allocate about $120 million in state funds to support winter heating assistance, but Democrats rejected that measure before settling on $30 million.

Lamont has reminded lawmakers that LIHEAP is a federal program and Congress primarily is responsible for funding it properly.

Critics counter that state government’s fiscal position, at least in the short term, is ridiculously flush. Connecticut holds a record-setting $3.3 billion in its rainy day fund, equal to 15% of annual operating expenses. And the current fiscal year is on pace to close with $3.2 billion left over, which would be the second-largest surplus in state history.

Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, longtime co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said “we need to make [the $30 million] available. We don’t need to have it lapse” unspent into the budget reserve.

A very clear indication that many households remain in need, Walker said, has been demonstrated by Operation Fuel, a Hartford-based nonprofit assistance group.

Operation Fuel announced recently it would pause its program until April 3 to catch up on a backlog of unprocessed assistance applications. 

Operation Fuel also will reduce energy assistance grants from $1,000 to $500 per household. So far this program year, the nonprofit has provided nearly $6 million in energy assistance to more than 6,000 households.

Debra Polun, executive director of The Connecticut Association for Community Action, called Lamont’s extension “welcome news, as we surely are not done with the cold weather yet.”

The regional, nonprofit community action agencies work with the Department of Social Services to enroll households in the state’s winter heating assistance program.

But Polun also challenged state officials to do more. She suggested that the deadline for applying for aid paying for deliverable fuels be extended much longer, until May 31, which is close to last year’s deadline, which was May 24.

“Ending oil authorizations at the end of March likely means those funds set aside by the state legislature in good faith will not be used — leaving too many Connecticut residents out in the cold,” she said. 

And while the deadline for deliverable fuels, such as home heating oil, now stands on March 31, eligible households can apply until May 31 for help paying heating-related electric costs.

Nora Duncan, executive director of the Connecticut AARP, echoed Polun’s call to extend the assistance program for deliverable fuels going much longer.

“We should be looking at trying to help the people who need it the most,” Duncan said. “People were anticipating this money would be spent.”

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