Bush Puts Freeze on Aid for Utility Bills

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From the LA Times....


Bush Puts Freeze on Aid for Utility Bills
Energy: President delays releasing $300 million that would help low-income households avoid shut-offs.
Times Staff Writer

September 8 2001

WASHINGTON -- When President Bush visited California in May, he pledged to seek $150 million to help low-income households pay high energy bills, saying, "I hope Congress acts quickly."

Congress in July authorized $300 million to help energy consumers nationwide, double the president's request.

But today, none of the emergency aid has been allocated, although officials in California and other states say the money is still desperately needed to help families pay off high bills from last winter and avoid utility shut-offs.

With energy prices easing and the federal budget tightening, the White House now is assessing whether the money needs to be released immediately.

Advocates for the poor are worried that the money will become one of the first casualties of the shrinking budget surplus. "Three hundred million dollars suddenly looks like a lot more money than it looked like a couple of weeks ago," said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Assn.

At least nine governors and 18 U.S. senators--Democrats and Republicans--say the money is needed now, and they are pressing the White House to release it.

Because the money was designated for emergency use, it is up to the president to decide when to release it and how to divide it among states. But the law defines an energy emergency broadly, fueling the dispute over whether the money should be spent now to help families pay off overdue bills or held for future price spikes and threatened utility shut-offs this winter. The $300 million in emergency assistance is in addition to nearly $2.3 billion allocated since late September of last year under the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

White House Waits to Release Funds

White House spokesmen said that when Bush requested the $150 million, officials were worried about a difficult summer. "At this point, there hasn't been extreme heat or cold to warrant release of the money," said Chris Ullman of the Office of Management and Budget. Administration officials say they are reviewing whether there is an immediate need for the funds. But they also say the money might be needed to help families through a severe winter.

"The money is needed right now," Wolfe said, adding that many families are struggling to pay bills from last winter. "There are too many people who are still subject to shut-off."

A survey taken by Wolfe's group earlier this year found the number of families applying for assistance had increased by more than 1 million, bringing the total recipients to more than 5 million. The group also found that the overdue utility bills of 4.3 million households in 19 states added up to $910 million.

Under the energy assistance program, low-income families receive help in lowering their air-conditioning and heating bills. A number of states report that they have run out of funds. California has rationed its funds to ensure that some money will be available throughout the year.

If the president releases the $300 million, California would receive at least $6.9 million under a formula that favors colder states. But California could receive tens of millions of dollars more if the president so chooses because of the state's past energy problems.

While advocates for the poor are worried about losing the money, administration officials say the money will remain available in the new fiscal year if it is not distributed before then.

"I am frustrated that the White House has decided to sit on this money," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chairman of the Northeast-Midwest Senate Coalition. "Cold weather is weeks away, and thousands of people still have last year's bills hanging over their heads."

Jerry McKim, chief of Iowa's energy assistance program, called the White House budget office this week to urge it to release the funds. Although energy costs are no longer front-page news, "I guarantee you it's on the minds of people who are still struggling to pay their bills from last winter," McKim said.

Iowa, one of a number of states that ran out of money for the program earlier this year, was unable to assist about 2,000 households. Among them was Des Moines resident Carolyn Finch, whose utility bill tripled to more than $1,000 in one month. She was forced to borrow money from her 83-year-old mother to keep her utilities from being shut off, said Myrna Hill, Finch's daughter.

Several governors in the Northeast and Midwest are pressing the White House to release the money so they can lock in lower prices for home heating oil for low-income families.

State officials have complained that the program has been underfunded. Nationally, fewer than one-fourth of the more than 20 million eligible households receive assistance each year. In California, fewer than 10% of the 2.1 million eligible households are expected to receive assistance this year.

No New Allocation Since Last December

Nearly 181,000 low-income households in California received an average of $256 to help pay their utility bills through August this year--about 100,000 more than last year, according to the state Department of Community Services and Development. To be eligible, a family of four must earn less than $33,125 a year. Priority is given to low-income families whose fuel bills consume a large proportion of their incomes, and to the elderly, the disabled and families with young children.

Since late September of last year, the federal government has allocated $2.3 billion nationwide for the energy assistance program. But no emergency assistance has been allocated since $300 million was released last December by then-President Clinton.

Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego) was furious to hear that the administration has yet to release the money.

"It's just disgraceful," Filner said. "I've got people calling me more and more who are in trouble now."

-- Cherri (jessam6@home.com), September 17, 2001

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