A bipartisan group of senators last week called on the Bush administration to release the final $100 million in emergency funding for Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) that helps needy families pay their utility bills. They also recommended that the annual LIHEAP budget be expanded.
Prior to leaving for the Thanksgiving holiday last year, Congress approved a measure that provided a total of $1.9 billion in regular funding for LIHEAP for fiscal year 2005, plus $300 million in emergency assistance, which is to be released to the states at the direction of President Bush. So far, the administration has released $200 million of the emergency funding.
"LIHEAP is a safety net for millions of Americans who struggle to pay to heat and cool their homes...Unfortunately, the amount of LIHEAP money that has been appropriated in the past is only enough to help about 15%, or four million of the 30 million households eligible for assistance," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), who joined the senators in asking for a bigger LIHEAP budget.
Bingaman proposes that the LIHEAP annual budget be raised to $3 billion -- "a major increase over the current authorization level of $2 billion." Funding for LIHEAP has remained flat over the past 20-plus years, while home electricity and natural gas costs have risen dramatically, he noted.
A study by the American Gas Association showed that more than 80% of the people who are eligible for LIHEAP funds do not receive assistance because of an inadequate level of federal funding. It reported that five million households received assistance through LIHEAP and related programs in 2001, while another 25 million eligible households did not.
In fiscal year 2001, the latest year for which figures were available, the average LIHEAP benefit was $297 to pay for energy bills that averaged $1,500 over a 12-month period, the association said.
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