Out in the Cold

The politics of low-income heating assistance.


Photograph by © MACLEG/Fotolia.com

When WZON disc jockey Pat LaMarche, a former Green Party gubernatorial and vice presidential candidate, heard that President Obama had proposed drastic cuts to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), she proposed sleeping out on the lawn of the Bangor radio station for a week to call attention to the problem and raise fifty thousand dollars for fuel assistance.

When WZON owner Stephen King (yes, that Stephen King) heard about LaMarche’s proposal, he pledged seventy thousand dollars if she could raise a like amount. Over Thanksgiving week, LaMarche did indeed sleep in a little wooden shelter outside the WZON studio, in the process raising $71,000 plus King’s $70,000 for a grand total of $141,000. The second largest contributor to the cause was the Lerner Foundation, operated by former independent candidate for governor Eliot Cutler, which pledged $46,000.

This little flurry of fund-raising, which has been repeated all over the state, was occasioned by the fact that President Obama, more often criticized for providing too much assistance to the needy than too little, proposed cutting the national LIHEAP budget from $4.7 billion in 2011 to $2.57 billion in 2012. Under the president’s plan, Maine would have seen a drop in heating assistance funds from $55.6 million to just $23 million. But the prospect of voters freezing to death makes for strange political bedfellows.

The Obama administration’s reasoning behind the dramatic cuts was that LIHEAP funds had doubled in fiscal year 2009 (from $2.57 billion to $5.1 billion) in response to soaring oil prices. With energy prices now “significantly lower,” it was time to return to the more sustainable 2008 funding level.

Maine heating oil prices in November 2011 ($3.64), however, were close to 80 cents a gallonhigher than in November 2010 ($2.87) and not all that far from the top price of $3.79 per gallon during the crisis year of 2008. So there’s a good chance President Obama may have lost a few votes in frozen Maine as a result of his proposed LIHEAP funding cuts.

“It is a classic political blunder,” says WZON’s Pat LaMarche. “He’s making [Republican Senator] Olympia Snowe look like [Democratic Congressman] Mike Michaud, putting her on the same side of the issue.”

Actually, everyone in Maine is on the same side of the issue. LIHEAP has long had bipartisan support in cold states.

While President Obama proposed $2.57 billion for LIHEAP, the U.S. House of Representatives backed $3.4 billion, and the U.S. Senate proposed $3.6 billion. In December, Senator Snowe cosponsored the LIHEAP Protection Act with Senator Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) seeking to restore funding to the 2011 level of $4.7 billion.

“It’s now up to Congress to decide how to fund LIHEAP, and as I have said,” says Senator Snowe, “winter is not waiting for Congress to act. This is precisely why I’ve joined Senators Reed and Sanders in introducing S.1961, the LIHEAP Protection Act, to retain last year’s LIHEAP funding level into 2012.” Representative Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, introduced a $4.7 billion companion bill in the House co-sponsored by Representative Mike Michaud.

“The whole thing is shocking,” says Representative Pingree. “We have let the president know more than once that we are annoyed that the administration would even put this on the table. It strikes fear into so many people. Maine is the most oil-dependent state in the nation and the [grayest] state in the nation, so it impacts us disproportionately.”

LIHEAP was created in 1981 to replace a patchwork of federal energy assistance programs that arose in the wake of the energy crises of the 1970s. Though it was originally conceived as a heating assistance program, cooling assistance was expressly added in 1984 when the program was reauthorized. So Louisiana actually gets a little more LIHEAP assistance ($58.1 million in FY 2010) to stay cool than Maine does to stay warm ($56.9 million in FY 2010). Funding levels bumped along at around $2 billion a year until the economic meltdown and runaway prices of 2008.

In Maine, federal LIHEAP funds are administered through the Maine State Housing Authority, which contracts with ten community action agencies to process applications. Western Maine Community Action (WMCA) in East Wilton handles LIHEAP for Franklin County.

“I have thirty-three years on the job,” says WMCA program director Judith Frost. “I’ve seen it when benefits were huge and people couldn’t use all the money they got. This year, if they get one-quarter of what they got last year, they will be doing well.”

Last year, WMCA received $2.5 million in LIHEAP funds to serve more than 2,500 people in Franklin County. President Obama’s cuts would reduce Franklin County’s heating assistance funds to just eight hundred thousand dollars.

“The average benefit last year was $850,” says Frost. “This year it’ll be closer to two hundred dollars.”
But Judy Frost is optimistic that Congress will come up with supplemental funding for LIHEAP one way or another. “Congress is not going to sit there and let people freeze to death,” says Frost.

Not if they want to get re-elected at any rate.

Low income heating assistance is not something a politician can oppose without looking like Ebenezer Scrooge. Even Governor Paul LePage, a champion of budget cutting and smaller government, has been on the LIHEAP funding bandwagon. “Last year,” says the governor, “Maine received $54 million in LIHEAP funding. This season, the money may be slashed to $30 million and these looming cuts proposed by President Obama will have a devastating impact on our state.”

As an editorial in the Bangor Daily News noted, however, “Governor LePage, who consistently argues that too much tax money is devoted to assistance programs, is now worried about the president’s cuts; the inconsistency is worth acknowledging.”

Indeed, in December, even as Governor LePage was advocating for more LIHEAP funds, he was also proposing to drop 65,000 Maine citizens from MaineCare health insurance coverage. Coincidentally, 65,000 is also the number of people projected to receive LIHEAP assistance in Maine this winter.

While it may sound as though LePage doesn’t believe the state should pay for Mainers’ health care but does believe the federal government should pay for their heating oil, when asked whether heating assistance is a legitimate function of the federal government the governor says frankly, “No. But once you’re in and develop dependency, you simply cannot cut it off all at once. We need more lead time.”

LePage suggested that he might ask the state legislature to replace some of the reduced federal heating assistance with monies from Efficiency Maine, an energy conservation program funded largely by a surcharge on electric bills. One might think that low income heating assistance would be a regular budget item in Maine, a chilly northern state with a reputation for generous assistance programs, but, in fact, the state has only appropriated money for heating assistance once. In 2006, under Governor John Baldacci, the state legislature came up with $5 million to supplement LIHEAP. And that’s it.

“There isn’t enough money in all of state government to fill the need,” says Dale McCormick, director of the Maine State Housing Authority. “The way we will survive and get along is through community and neighbor helping neighbor. We’re going to rediscover community. We’re going to be forced to. It’s something positive than can come out of this crisis.”

As described, Maine’s heating safety net begins with federal LIHEAP dollars sent to the state and applied for through ten regional community action organizations, but the finer mesh of emergency heating aid is woven of hundreds of grassroots efforts ranging from fund-raisers such as WZON’s Help Keep ME Warm campaign to heating funds administered by local church and civic groups.

In Franklin County, for instance, where Western Maine Community Action handles LIHEAP applications, there are also organizations such as the Franklin County Ecumenical Heating Fund and the Good Neighbor Tri-Town Fuel Assistance Program.

The Good Neighbor Tri-Town Fuel Assistance Program was established in 2009 when Wausau Paper closed the Otis Specialty Papers mill in Jay. What began as a program to assist out-of-work mill workers has become a community project that last year provided thirty thousand dollars in fuel assistance to 115 households in Jay, Livermore, and Livermore Falls. Deliveries, however, have had to be reduced this year from one hundred gallons to seventy-five gallons.

Debbie Kendall, who worked in the Jay mill for twenty-five years through five changes in ownership, coordinates the tri-town heating fund. Ticking off a list of the bake sales, waffle breakfasts, and church offerings that contribute to the fund, Kendall says, “I prefer to do it that way rather than asking for money, but asking is the way to get the most money.”

In November, Good Neighbor Tri-Town Fuel Assistance sponsored a pie sale. High school basketball players took orders at the Otis Credit Union. They sold six pies. It could be a long, cold winter at that rate.

The Franklin County Ecumenical Heating Fund, also known as EcuHeat, started in 2005 when eight area churches pooled their resources to provide emergency heating assistance. Last year, EcuHeat provided $46,281 to 301 homeowners. Until two years ago, EcuHeat provided one-time deliveries of one hundred gallons of heating oil. Now, with both demand and the price of oil up, it can only afford to provide fifty gallons.

Reverend Susan Crane, pastor of the Henderson Memorial Baptist Church in Farmington, coordinates the Franklin County Ecumenical Heating Fund in partnership with Western Maine Community Action. She says she often hears the argument that people need to take responsibility for themselves and not rely on the government for assistance, but she rejects it.

“These are not lazy people,” says Reverend Crane. “These are people who worked hard all their lives at low-paying jobs. They’ve paid taxes all their lives. Now they are victims of an economy gone wild. We shouldn’t expect them to sit there and freeze to death in their homes. We have a moral responsibility to prevent that.”

The Farmington Area Ecumenical Ministry, which started EcuHeat, meets that moral responsibility not only by providing heating assistance but also a food pantry, housing assistance, and warming centers where residents can socialize and stay warm without having to heat their homes during the day.

“There but for the grace of God go I,” warns Reverend Crane. “Any one of us could lose a job and be in the position of not being able to buy oil. Any one of us.” Additional reporting contributed by Virginia M. Wright:
The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012, passed by Congress in December, includes $3.5 billion in federal funds for LIPHEAP. Maine now stands to receive $40 million for the 2011-2012 heating season.