MONTPELIER -- A Shumlin administration proposal to slash $2 million from the state's low-income weatherization program couldn't come at a worse time, housing activists say.

The weatherization program helps pay for retrofits that improve thermal efficiency and weather resistance for some of the state's oldest housing stock, advocates said at a news conference Wednesday.

With waiting lists of a year or more, Hal Cohen, executive director of the Central Vermont Community Action Council, said now is not the time to scale back the program.

"With the cold winter that we've had and the cold winters that we have had (and what we can expect), it's very important that this program can continue at its current level," Cohen said.

CVCAC officials said the cuts to the Weatherization Assistance Program could delay the state from reaching its goal of weatherizing 14,000 homes by 2020.

Cohen said for every dollar invested in weatherization, about $2.50 is returned to residents. Aside from saving residents money, he said the program keeps low-income residents warm during winter months and reduces greenhouse gas emissions with efficiency improvements.

The council, which provides free weatherization services to low-income residents in central Vermont, said it requires level funding at about $12 million per year to maintain its current capacity, which includes equipment costs and retaining the program's trained staff. The Barre-based organization retrofits more than 1,200 homes annually.

"We would have to essentially mothball part of our capacity if the budget passed as it was submitted," said Paul Zabriskie, program director for the weatherization service that operates through the council.

Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, who serves on the legislative Climate Caucus, said the program reduces greenhouse gas emissions and prepares Vermonters for what have been frequent patterns of heavy rain and snowfall.

"If we continue to focus on this, we are going to make a difference not just in the lives of individual Vermonters, but we will be able to continue not burning, as we did last year through the weatherization program, not burning 465,000 gallons of fuel," Hooper said. "That's an enormous reduction in CO2 emissions. We need this sort of effort to make a difference -- again, not just in the lives of the most vulnerable people in our communities, but in the life of our planet."

The Climate Caucus submitted a letter to the House calling for the program to be level-funded. The letter has more than 80 signatures from lawmakers.

Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, said legislative committees should tighten up current programs and redirect existing expenditures toward low-income weatherization programs.

"We're not asking to greatly increase a program, I think we're asking that the program not be allowed to march backward," he said.

Klein said weatherization requires a small investment to make "a major positive impact, not only on the environment, but on people's lives." When homes are buttoned up, the state and consumers spend less money on out-of-state fuel, he said, and that benefits the local economy.

The program has been supported by a series of one-time funding sources, including funding from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Green Mountain Power-Central Vermont Public Service merger settlement.

The federal government will provide a little more than $1 million to the program this year.