WASHINGTON – The Senate approved a bill Tuesday that would free up $1 billion in federal home energy assistance to defray this winter’s heating costs.
Maryland stands to gain at least $28.5 million through the deal, which would nearly double the state’s current budget of $31.3 million, according to Mark Wolfe, the executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association.
The bill, which now goes to the House, would take money from the 2007 fiscal year budget of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and make it available to states this year.
“Money was put in by the Budget Reconciliation Act and this legislation would draw it back like a straw in reverse, bringing (money) from the future,” said George Coling, the executive director of the National Fuel Funds Network.
Half of the money would go to the states through block grants immediately, while the remaining $500 million would be set aside in an emergency fund controlled by the president.
Coling said that the emergency funds would more than likely be given out this year as well because so many states have already spent their LIHEAP funds on “the dramatic rise in fuel prices.”
Although it is true that home heating prices have gone up, consumption has gone down, said Jonathan Cogan, an energy information specialist for the Energy Information Administration.
“We anticipated much steeper price increases than it has turned out, and the big factor was the weather,” Cogan said.
Maryland has experienced a mild winter where temperatures averaged 36 degrees, about three degrees warmer than last year, said Sarah Allen, a forecaster for the National Weather Service.
Mary Lou Kueffer, the director of the Maryland Office of Home Energy Programs, said Maryland’s federal funding has been stretched thin and that they “anticipate running out near the end of this month.”
However, she said state dollars will cover any shortfall and that the program is not under threat of being shut down this year.
While Maryland benefits from the bill’s passing, Kueffer worried that the funds won’t be there next winter.
“The heating season is just about over. I would prefer that they guarantee that the money would be available in 2007,” Kueffer said.
But Kueffer said that even if the funds could not carry over into the following year, she would put it to use.
“We would find a way to make our program work more effectively,” said Kueffer.
But Mary Ellen Vanni, the executive director of the Fuel Fund for Maryland, said she worried the bill only delays the bigger problem.
“There is always a need for more funding for LIHEAP,” she said. But, “it’s not like there is going to be less of a need next year.”
Vanni said that LIHEAP already does not have enough money for those who are eligible for the program. Out of the 279,000 Marylanders who were eligible for LIHEAP assistance, Vanni said only 90,000 actually received that assistance.