Mass. leaders gear up for fight to save federal heating assistance funds
NORTH ADAMS — If the Trump administration's effort to gut the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program in the fiscal 2020 budget succeeds, there will be more than 7,000 Berkshire County households struggling to find money to heat their homes next winter.
The proposal calls for reducing funding for the program from $3.69 billion to zero. Meanwhile, Beacon Hill lawmakers have advanced a $30 million state appropriation to provide additional heating assistance for low-income individuals in the supplemental budget — which is backed by Gov. Charlie Baker — to a final conference committee, said state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams.
"That is going to be voted on and approved," Barrett said. "Because these are some of our most vulnerable people by far — most of them seniors."
Trump administration officials said low-income households have other places to seek assistance.
"In a constrained budget environment, difficult funding decisions were made to ensure that federal funds are being spent as effectively as possible," the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services wrote in its budget plan. "Some utility companies and state and local governments also provide heating and cooling assistance. Many states limit regulated utilities from discontinuing heat or cooling during specific time frames such as certain winter/summer months and/or a certain number of consecutive days where the temperature drops below or increases above a certain level."
Last week, U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Westford, circulated a statement from members of the New England Congressional delegation vowing to reinstate program funds.
"We know New England was disproportionately hurt by the Department of Health and Human Services Fiscal Year 2019 Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program allocation," delegation members said. "LIHEAP is critical to seniors, people with disabilities, and the most vulnerable in our region. It keeps homes warm in the winter, and cooler in the summer. As a united New England delegation, we are looking into every option to address this issue to ensure our constituents are not impacted."
Presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said she is also troubled by the president's efforts to undercut the poorest segment of the population.
"President Trump's budget would put families out in the cold by eliminating LIHEAP, which hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents rely on to heat their homes during the cold winter months," Warren told The Eagle via email Thursday. "I'm committed to working with my colleagues to protect and strengthen this critical program."
Massachusetts this year received a 7.6 percent reduction in its LIHEAP allocation, which had already dropped from $200 million to $136 million in recent years, according to state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.
Aleta Moncecchi, deputy director of the Berkshire Community Action Council, which administers the LIHEAP program locally, noted that among the 7,000 households served by LIHEAP funds, about 2,500 of them had run out of their heating assistance funds by mid-December.
"If LIHEAP disappears, 7,000 households will be hurt," she said. "And with the biggest number of them being seniors, it will get scary."
Moncecchi noted that the state legislators "really stepped up" by coming up with additional funding to fill in the gaps of reduced funding from the federal government last winter.
"I think our state representatives well know that our friends and families are suffering," she said.
The State House News Service contributed to this report.
Scott Stafford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-629-4517.
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