Congress gives boost to heating assistance program

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WASHINGTON — A federally funded benefit that helps Americans heat their homes got an increase in the omnibus spending bill Congress passed last week, despite recommendations from the Trump administration to cut the program.

The omnibus bill President Donald Trump signed into law last week, which funds the federal government through the end of September, appropriates more than $3.6 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.

That is an increase of $250 million nationally over the previous fiscal year.

The bump in funding came despite recommendations from Trump's administration to eliminate the federal benefit in the current fiscal year budget.

Vermont officials are still waiting to see how much of that increase the state will be able to use during the current fiscal year. According to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the state could receive an additional $1.4 million as a result of the omnibus.

Sean Brown, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF), said the state is still working with federal partners to determine the exact amount that Vermont will get as a result of the increase, and the best way to access it in the final weeks of winter weather.

"This additional money, we're trying to figure out if there's ways we can spend it in the time left," Brown said.

Because the new appropriation came halfway through the federal fiscal year, Brown said it is not clear that the state will be able to leverage the full amount of the increase.

The amount of money households will receive for the cold weather season is calculated in the fall, he said. The amount Vermont would pay for that benefit was determined many months ago.

The average seasonal benefit for this winter was $879 per household, according to Brown. The benefit paid for more than half of households' total heating costs for the winter. Households with lower incomes may have received more, and those with higher incomes may have received less.

However, the state may be able to bring in some of the additional federal funding to pay for LIHEAP crisis benefits, which are available to help people pay their heating bills on a short-term basis through the winter. In some cases, households who get the seasonal benefit may also need to use the crisis program in order to be able to heat their homes, Brown said.

States also have an opportunity to save a portion of unused federal funding to put toward the program next year, according to Brown.

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Brown said the program is a critical support for many Vermont families. More than 28,000 households received some type of benefit from LIHEAP this winter. Many people who use the program are elderly or have disabilities.

"Without this resource, it could be very dangerous for those households being able to survive without heat in their homes," he said.

While Congress eschewed the administration's proposal to eliminate the program in the current year budget, the debate is likely to continue. Trump again proposed to zero-out LIHEAP in his budget for the next fiscal year, which was released in February.

The administration has opposed funding the LIHEAP program on the grounds that it is rife with fraud.

Leahy, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., have all vocally defended the program.

At a Senate Budget Committee hearing the day after the administration's proposal for fiscal year 2019 was released, Sanders, ranking member of the committee, pressed White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney on the proposal, questioning the morality of eliminating a program that million rely on to stay warm during the winter.

Mulvaney cited a 2010 GAO study that found evidence that in some states, 9 percent of households that received a benefit did so fraudulently. The benefits paid out erroneously totaled $116 million, according to the report.

"That's not moral," Mulvaney said.

The administration has also argued that the program is redundant with many state-run services, so the impact of cutting it would be minimal.

Brown said that the benefit program, which is administered in Vermont by DCF, has an extremely low rate of fraud.

A recent audit found the rate of fraud to be 0.26 percent in DCF's four main economic services programs, including LIHEAP, according to Brown.

He also said that though there are some other initiatives that help Vermonters manage their heating bills, they are small and driven by donations.

"No program exists even close to the magnitude that could replace, to my knowledge, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program," he said.


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