WASHINGTON – Democratic lawmakers are urging the Bush administration to increase funding for a $2 billion energy program to help the poor pay heating bills expected to increase about 47 percent this winter.
The energy assistance program helps low-income families, primarily the elderly and disabled, pay utility bills — about one-third of the total bill, on average. The money is disbursed through block grants to the states.
Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman (search) said last week that additional money was "not on the agenda." However, department spokesman Craig Stevens said Monday, "I think it's an option on the table."
Sen. John Kerry (search), D-Mass., says the program's impact is diminishing because funding has not kept up with rising fuel prices.
Kerry unsuccessfully tried to attach an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill last week that called for increasing funding to $5.1 billion.
"It is critical ... to avoid a looming but absolutely preventable crisis for millions of American families," Kerry said.
Stephen Nocilla (search), director of Catholic Social Services in Scranton, Pa., said he's worried about the impact of higher energy prices on poor families in Northeast Pennsylvania. He's making plans with local officials to open up more emergency shelters this winter.
"This is a life-and-death situation," Nocilla said. "People are going to have to make some very difficult choices."
The American Gas Association, which represents utilities, also supports more money for the program, which serves 5 million households.
"It really is an acute situation," said Peggy Laramie, the association's spokeswoman. "It's an opening for Congress to do something for people who shouldn't have to choose between heating their homes or feeding their families, or buying their prescription drugs."
Kerry, citing Energy Department estimates, projected that families in the Midwest face a 69 percent to 77 percent increase in the price of natural gas, and a 39 percent to 43 percent increase for propane. Families in the South could expect a 17 percent to 18 percent increase in their electricity bills, and families in the Northeast could face a 29 percent to 33 percent increase in the price of heating oil, he said.
The program is run by the Administration for Children and Families, part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
HHS released a statement Monday that kept the door open to all funding options.
"We are closely monitoring the situation in the context of Katrina recovery," the agency said. "We will work with the Congress if we determine further amounts are needed."
Congress appropriated $2.2 billion for the program during the latest fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. President Bush has called for spending $2 billion on the program in fiscal year 2006. But that recommendation was made before oil prices skyrocketed and before hundreds of thousands lost their jobs as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
Congress authorized a significant increase in funding — to $5.1 billion — when it passed a comprehensive energy bill this summer. Ironically, that's about the amount that would be needed to hold recipients harmless from higher fuel prices this winter.
However, funding would only increase if Congress approves it through an appropriations bill.
About 20 states have moratoriums that prevent utility companies from shutting off the heat in the winter, officials said. Some states also fund programs to help the poor pay their utilities.