Budget is heartless for heat-less


Obama’s proposed budget, sent to Congress on Monday, was chock full of "tough choices and sacrifices."

While it would be easy to go over every line and second-guess or laud decisions, at first glance none seems more egregious than LIHEAP -- which provided heating assistance for low-income families and those in need -- being slashed by half.

"Heat in the winter is not a consumer choice. It’s not a luxury," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., stated following Monday’s announcement.

Indeed, fuel assistance for needy families -- especially here in Vermont and the rest of New England -- is a matter of life and death, comfort and misery for millions of Americans.

"In Windham County many residents who rely on fuel assistance programs have already seen their support cut," Richard Davis, co-founder of the Windham County Heating Fund, told the Reformer. "(The fund) has helped 77 families by providing $30,000 of fuel this winter and the fund is out of money. We receive calls daily from people who have used up their fuel assistance money as well as people who didn’t expect to be hit with a cancer diagnosis or job loss. President Obama’s proposal to cut LIHEAP funding in half will result in the deaths of many Americans. It is the wrong place to cut funding, especially if we believe that government has a responsibility to provide support for the most vulnerable among us. Abandoning those people is not a sound budgetary strategy nor is it sensible from a humane perspective."

Cutting the program will net a savings of $2.5 billion in the proposal. That’s a lot of money to be sure, but not when taken in context of the budget as a whole. Consider this:

-- The Agency Veterans Affairs will see a 4.5 percent increase to $129 billion (a move we applaud given the rising number of men and woman or have served or continue to serve our country).

-- The Agency of Transportation will see a 68 percent increase to $128.6 billion (the bulk of which will go toward updating and upgrading the nation’s rail services).

-- The Agency of Commerce will see a 13.9 percent increase to $10.4 billion (which will increase funding toward expanding high-speed Internet access across the country, but also go toward pushing entrepreneurial innovation and expanding exports to foreign nations).

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-- Homeland Security will enjoy a 1.8 percent increase to $44.3 billions (for more full-body scanners at our nation’s airports, no doubt!).

Those were some of the more notable increases. On the flip side:

-- State agencies will see a 0.7 percent decrease (down to $73.6 billion).

-- Defense was cut by 5.8 percent (to $727 billion).

-- The Environmental Protection Agency will be down 11.2 percent (to $8.8 billion).

Again, this is just a snapshot of the bigger picture. But from these numbers, you mean to tell us the increases to Transportation, Commerce or Homeland Securities couldn’t be scaled back to accommodate a basic necessity like heat in the winter? This is what happens when the poor don’t have a voice in Washington.

"This is simply wrong," Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., stated Monday. "We must not balance the budget at the expense of Vermonters struggling to heat their homes in winter. Instead of turning off the heat, we should be turning off the billions of dollars in subsidies we provide the oil industry."

Leahy concurred, adding that instead of cutting heating assistance, Congress should end tax breaks for oil companies that "are just using them to make obscene profits."

And Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., who himself was the chief sponsor of a 2008 bill that increased federal heating assistance, said he was disappointed in the proposal and that the national budget shouldn’t be "balanced on the backs of the weak, the vulnerable, the sick or the old who can’t afford to heat their homes in the winter."

We agree. Tough choices need to be made, but when you’re looking to craft a $3.73 trillion budget, where most cuts will be held off for several years, there simply has to be better places to look at besides basic human necessities. After all, as a society, we’re only as strong as our weakest link. Turning our backs on those in need will only hurt us in the end.


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