Our Opinion: Disappointing stance by Baker on fuel aid

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President Trump's indifference to the plight of low-income Americans is well-established so his bid to eliminate federal funding to help those families with the cost of heat is no surprise. The response of Governor Baker, which amounts to piling on, is a surprise, however.

The president reduced funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) from $3.69 billion to zero in his fiscal 2020 budget. Mr. Trump probably did so to punish cold weather states that tend to vote Democratic, like Massachusetts and the rest of New England, but he has low-income supporters in those states who would also suffer because of his spiteful budget cut. House Democrats will fight these cuts in what is sure to be a lengthy budget battle accompanied by threats of a government shutdown, but should they happen, more than 7,000 Berkshire households will struggle to pay for their heat next winter. (Eagle, April 11.)

The White House has been hacking away at LIHEAP funding for two years, with the state hit with a 7.6 percent reduction in funds for the current year that had already declined from $200 million to $136 million, according to figures supplied to The Eagle by state Senator Adam Hinds. To compensate in part, the Legislature passed a $30 million appropriation in the state's supplemental budget which the governor signed.

The Baker administration, however, through its Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, announced last week that it would distribute $11 million, which it asserts brings the fuel aid benefits up to 2018 levels, and not release the remaining $19 million until next year. In a letter to the governor, Joe Diamond, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association for Community Action, disputes the administration's figures, asserting that far less than half of the 160,000 households served by LIHEAP would benefit from the fuel assistance money if only $11 million is release and the "poorest of the poor" earning up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level would be hit hardest.

The bottom line is that the governor signed off on $30 million in fuel assistance, not $11 million. The administration may believe it is wise to squirrel away $19 million in anticipation of coming cuts to LIHEAP but they are not a done deal and can be addressed later. Mr. Diamond worries that without the full $30 million in assistance now people will not be able to pay utility bills and risk being shut off.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who recently warned that the state doesn't have the resources to make up for all of the Trump administration's cuts, has nevertheless urged the governor to release all $30 million of the approved funds "to support the most vulnerable families in the Commonwealth." Along with Senator Hinds, State Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield and John Barrett III of North Adams told The Eagle they would join colleagues in pressuring the administration to reverse its decision and release all of the funding. Whatever the administration's motivation it is only worsening the plight of those victimized by the president's callousness.

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