MONTPELIER -- The 2015 state budget was approved on the House floor last week, now moving into the Senate. The Appropriations Committee allocated $6 million of state funds to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to cover 2,100 homes that would have lost some food aid benefits under the "Heat and Eat" provision in the bipartisan Agricultural Act of 2014, or "Farm Bill" that was passed in February. Last year, the state backfilled $8.1 million into LIHEAP.

LIHEAP is a set annual block grant, of which Vermont was given $19.1 million for the next fiscal year. In 2013, the state received $15.7 million for heating assistance. "Heat and Eat" is a fuel assistance provision under LIHEAP.

Under the current federal rules, beneficiaries of the program qualify for additional food assistance if they receive as little as a $1 nominal heating benefit. In Vermont, those receiving LIHEAP benefits of $3 or $5 in nominal heating assistance qualify for additional aid under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Under the new Farm Bill provision, households must be given a minimum of $20 nominal heating assistance to qualify for the same food assistance they currently receive under SNAP.

Although LIHEAP funds are set to a fixed amount based on the federal budget, SNAP funds are only limited to any household who qualifies for them. In Vermont, those funds are distributed by the 3SquaresVT program at the Department for Children and Families.

"The Republican-controlled House’s intent was to cut back the number of families that need assistance," said Vermont Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding. Spaulding said Vermont would have looked for any way to ensure the continued food aid of those citizens that the Farm Bill intended to cut from SNAP benefits, "(but) we are always looking for ways to improve the lives of our citizens."

GOP seeks permanent cuts

On Tuesday, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan introduced the GOP’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2015. The proposed budget would cut $125 billion from SNAP by, like LIHEAP, making it a block-grant program.

The U.S. House of Representatives anticipated saving $800 million dollars in SNAP funds across 10 years by changing the "Heat and Eat" provision in the Farm Bill. Eight of the 17 states that take part in LIHEAP, including Vermont, New York and Pennsylvania are investing the additional money in heating assistance it would take to maintain the amount of food aid households already receive. In other words: For as many states that take advantage of LIHEAP, if they provide minimum nominal heating assistance, none of the budget cuts to SNAP that the Farm Bill intended will be made in those states.

"It’s a nice attempt to convince states not to do this, but when you do the cost-benefit analysis the benefit is apparent as an economic stimulus program," said Richard Moffi, chief of Vermont’s Fuel Assistance Office.

Ryan’s budget proposal seeks to make the cuts permanent.

Moffi said the Farm Bill established the price tag for states to receive the needed amount of food assistance. He assured that the additional contribution of heating assistance that gives way to money saved by food assistance goes directly back into Vermont’s economy. If the GOP budget or a budget with a similar provision passes, states like Vermont may seek other legal routes to maintain the same level of food assistance.

Contact Tom Momberg at tmomberg@benningtonbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomMomberg