Congress has raised funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) by $300 million to $2.2 billion for fiscal year 2005, a move that elicited kudos from industry groups and lawmakers.

The LIHEAP funds were included in the omnibus spending bill that Congress passed before leaving for the Thanksgiving holiday. The measure provides a total of $1.9 billion in regular funding for LIHEAP, plus $300 million in emergency assistance, which can be released to the states at the direction of President Bush. The funds would be available for this winter heating season.

The American Gas Association (AGA) called it a “heartening decision” by lawmakers, although it had urged Capitol Hill earlier this month to provide emergency funds of $600 million in addition to the regular appropriations level of $1.9 billion for fiscal 2005 (see NGI, Nov. 15).

Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) and more than 100 House lawmakers also beckoned appropriators to provide $600 million in emergency LIHEAP funds. While they got only half of what they requested, he said he welcomed the funds. “In a tough budget year, this program can use every dollar it gets.”

Last year, $1.9 billion was made available to help low-income families with their energy bills ($1.8 billion in regular funding, plus $100 million in emergency monies).

The omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2005 has not been signed by the president yet. The measure was stalled on Capitol Hill over a controversial provision that would permit Appropriations Committees to review Americans’ tax returns. The House expects to return on Dec. 6 to repeal the provision, which would then free up the bill to be sent to the White House.

A recent AGA study 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, the association said. It found that five million households received assistance through LIHEAP and related programs in 2001, while another 25 million eligible households did not.

Most LIHEAP beneficiaries do not receive welfare or other forms of public assistance. Instead, they are working, retired or disabled people with below-poverty incomes who receive $200 per year, on average, to pay toward a natural gas, heating oil or electricity bills that average $1,000 over a 12-month period, the AGA said. More than half of LIHEAP beneficiaries use natural gas heat.

In fiscal year 2001, the latest year for which figures are available, the average LIHEAP benefit was $297 to pay for energy bills that averaged $1,500 over a 12-month period, said AGA spokeswoman Peggy Laramie

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