Our opinion: Continued funding of LIHEAP a must


When it comes to keeping the most vulnerable among us warm, more money is needed.

That's the message Washington lawmakers are sending to the House Appropriations Committee, regarding the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

In a letter this week, Reps. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and Peter King, R-N.Y., the leading House advocates for funding LIHEAP, used this past winter to illustrate how important any and all assistance is to those in need, and called for the program to be funded at $4.7 billion for fiscal year 2015.

"LIHEAP helps to ensure that people do not have to choose between paying their energy bills and paying for food and medicine," the letter reads. "The record breaking and life threatening cold that has swept much of the nation this winter is a reminder of the importance of this program. A strong LIHEAP program is necessary to effectively meet the critical needs of our constituents, especially as energy costs remain high, the economy is still rebounding, and record numbers of families turn to the program for assistance."

A bipartisan group of 137 lawmakers signed on in support.

Over the past several years, LIHEAP has lost about 30 percent of its funding. For some context, here's a couple of things to consider:

-- This past winter, Vermont received $18.3 million in federal LIHEAP funding.

-- Almost 28,000 households received some form of heating assistance this past year.

-- In addition, the state appropriated an additional $9.7 million for the program.

It's clear, the need is there.

The omnibus Farm Bill passed by Congress this past February included $8.6 billion in cuts over the next 10 years in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But it could have been worse, as U.S. House Republicans had initially sought $40 billion in reductions.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told VTDigger he was disappointed by the cuts, characterizing the reductions as "both morally and economically wrong to cut assistance to families in a very difficult economy."

For all practical purposes, according to a VTDigger report, "the new bill eliminates what is known as the 'heat and eat' program in northern states. It requires 17 states to come up with additional monies to fund food stamps for people who are eligible for the Low Income Heating Assistance Program."

Late last month, the 2015 Vermont budget was approved by the House. In it, the Appropriations Committee allocated $6 million in state funds toward LIHEAP, which aims to cover 2,100 homes that would have lost some food aid benefits under the "Heat and Eat" provision in the bipartisan Agricultural Act of 2014.

"The Republican-controlled House's intent was to cut back the number of families that need assistance," Vermont Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding told the Bennington Banner. Spaulding said Vermont would have looked for any way to ensure the continued food aid of those citizens that the Farm Bill intended to cut from SNAP benefits, "(but) we are always looking for ways to improve the lives of our citizens."

We applaud Welch, King and the other lawmakers looking to address these egregious cuts. It's clear many tough choices need to be made as states and the country continue to address economic challenges. But surely there are better ways to enact such cuts, rather than slashing aid to people who could very well find themselves in a life or death situation next winter.

"Continuing lower levels of funding for LIHEAP will have a devastating impact on millions of American families already suffering during the economic downturn," the Welch/King letter states.

What can it say for us, as a society, when we are unable or unwilling to continue helping those among us in greatest need?


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