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CT energy assistance applications up nearly 25% over last year

The state has already seen a steep increase in the number of requests for heating assistance.
Yehyun Kim
/
CT Mirror
The state has already seen a steep increase in the number of requests for heating assistance.

State officials have taken a wait-and-see approach on whether to assist Connecticut’s cash-starved heating assistance program.

But with a second wave of federal funding in political limbo and demand escalating, advocates fear poor families will be freezing in their homes long before state legislators return to the Capitol on Feb. 7.

More than 33,000 applications for the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program (CEAP) were approved between Sept. 1 and Nov. 4, according to the state Department of Social Services. That’s 23% higher than early November numbers last winter, when the program went on to shatter the 100,000-household mark for the first time.

“We do have a timing problem,” Claire Coleman, Connecticut’s consumer counsel and the chairwoman of the Low Income Energy Advisory Board said Tuesday.

While advocates will continue to urge Congress to increase the Low Income Household Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) grants that fund nearly all of CEAP, they also will keep pressing state officials to break precedent and add local dollars to the energy assistance budget.

“We need to be working now to identify funding sources to ensure that as LIHEAP funds dry up,” Coleman said, “there are other resources to ensure that Connecticut families can keep their homes warm.”

Signs of a potential crisis first arose in late summer

Energy assistance advocates have been worried about a winter crisis in early August when state social services officials projected federal LIHEAP funding for this winter would be rolled back considerably — to pre-pandemic levels.

The department estimated that Connecticut would have $84.8 million to spend on energy assistance this winter, the lowest energy budget since 2018-19. Household income must be at or below 60% of the state median to qualify. For a family of four, that’s a cap of $79,910.

But while roughly 81,500 households received assistance in the winter of 2018-19, according to the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, state social service officials say the number of households eligible to apply this winter tops 116,300 — up 43%.

Last year, the program served 105,765 households.

Based on those numbers, social services officials projected in August that the maximum benefit this winter — for the poorest qualifying household — would be $1,350, or $970 less than last year’s maximum relief.

And those numbers could get smaller.

That’s because they were based on a potential caseload of 116,300 households. But if the 23% increase in applications seen during September, October and early November continues for the rest of the winter, the 2023-24 caseload would fall just shy of 130,000.

“The need may outpace the actual resources that are available,” said Rhonda Evans, interim director of the Connecticut Association for Community Action. “That’s of great concern to the community action network.” The state’s nine regional anti-poverty action agencies work with the Department of Social Services to help needy households apply for and secure heating assistance.

Biden proposal to expand LIHEAP still pending

Still, there has been some cause for optimism. In late October, President Joe Biden proposed a second wave of LIHEAP funding. This might have increased Connecticut’s share by more than 40%.

But Congress still hasn’t acted on the proposal and continues to struggle to resolve a wide array of domestic and foreign spending issues.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut’s 3rd District and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, was cautious earlier this month in her assessment of the funding’s chances of passage.

“I’m not just going to tell you it’s a slam dunk,” DeLauro, a longtime advocate of the LIHEAP grants, told the Connecticut Mirror. “I’m going to push as hard as I can.”

But while LIHEAP traditionally has enjoyed strong bipartisan support, the current Republican majority in the U.S. House “wants to cut everything back here.”

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District and a former co-chairman of the Connecticut legislature’s Human Services Committee, expressed similar sentiments in late October, saying the fate of Biden’s supplemental LIHEAP proposal is “murky.”

The Low Income Energy Advisory Board has been urging state officials to supplement this winter’s assistance budget with state dollars. The congresswoman also encouraged them to consider the advisory board’s request.

“People across the country are living paycheck to paycheck,” she said, adding that “at every level of government — state and local — we must do whatever we can to help working families make ends meet.”

Will CT taps its flush coffers to avert a heating crisis?

The advisory board is asking state officials to bolster the current CEAP budget by 20%, which would add $17 million to the program but still leave some per-household benefits hundreds of dollars below last winter’s levels.

Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget office projected this week that state finances will close about $632 million in the black next June 30. That’s well below the record-setting windfalls of the past three fiscal years — which ranged from $1.7 billion to $4.3 billion — but still represents a healthy financial cushion equal to nearly 3% of this year’s General Fund.

The state also holds more than $3.3 billion in its budget reserve, commonly known as the rainy day fund.

Last winter, the governor and General Assembly technically committed $30 million in state resources to supplement LIHEAP but on the condition that those funds not be spent unless all federal funds first were exhausted.

Advocates were frustrated last June when they learned the state never spent its $30 million. Critics charged the administration set maximum benefit levels artificially low to ensure state funds wouldn’t be tapped.

Nora Duncan, state director of the AARP and also a member of the Low-Income Energy Advisory Board, echoed Coleman’s call Tuesday for state officials to ensure a more robust energy assistance budget.

A new electric rate discount program ordered by the General Assembly will help income-eligible Eversource and United Illuminating customers secure either a 10% or 50% discount.

Eligibility for the 10% break is the same as that of CEAP: household income at or below 60% of the state median. The 50% discount is available for those making 160% of the Federal Poverty Level or less. For a family of four, that’s about $48,000.

And while Duncan praised those discount programs, she noted that needy families that don’t use electric heat won’t get the maximum benefit of that program.

And while electric utilities cannot legally shut off service during the winter to delinquent households, heating oil and natural gas distributors face no such prohibition.

“If there’s no money, nobody has to deliver [fuel,]” Duncan said. “We can’t rely on the kindness of business owners.”

Home heating oil prices at the end of October averaged just under $4.10 per gallon in Connecticut, according to state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection records. That’s well below the $5.87 per gallon average price from late October 2022.

But Chris Herb, president of the Connecticut Energy Marketers Association and also a member of the advisory board, said some of that savings likely will vanish once temperatures begin to drop.

That also could lead many poor families to exhaust their energy assistance well before the winter is over.

CT lawmakers could act in January

But the state legislature’s top leaders said Tuesday that lawmakers may not wait until the regular 2024 session begins on Feb. 7 to address winter heating.

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said he’s meeting in early December with energy assistance advocates.

And both Ritter and Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said majority Democrats in their respective chambers haven’t ruled out coming into special session in January to supplement CEAP if necessary.

“I don’t think we’ve ruled out anything,” Looney said.

“I think it’s a conversation worth having,” Ritter said, adding there may very well be an appetite in our caucus to look at that [funding] gap.”

Sen. Patricia Miller, D-Stamford, chairwoman of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said there are many lawmakers ready to tap state coffers to bolster energy assistance.

“The state needs to do whatever it needs to do to step up to the plate,” Miller said, adding that her caucus’ 40 members represent many of the state’s poorest communities, where the need is great.

A proposal to use state funds also likely would draw strong bipartisan support. Over the last two years Republican legislative leaders have been more vocal than their Democratic counterparts in calling for state funding to be used.

“There’s a substantial part of our state that’s not doing economically well,” Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, told the CT Mirror when the lean CEAP benefit projections were issued last August, adding that unwillingness to tap state surpluses to help is “a callous, cold-hearted policy.”

But Lamont, a fiscally moderate Democrat, has argued it’s more complicated than that.

Though the CEAP system is overseen by the state, traditionally it’s just been a mechanism to distribute federal funds to mitigate heating needs — not to solve all of them, administration officials say.

The governor’s budget spokesman, Chris Collibee, said Tuesday that the Lamont administration urged U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, to approve the president’s supplemental LIHEAP funding proposal.

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.