October 20, 2021


As re-runs go, the quality of this year’s energy-assistance show was outstanding. Through a combination of compromise and persistence, Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins yet again advanced legislation that would increase funding for the important heating subsidy. But they must know that future seasons for this show look bleak and a new plot is required.

The Senate Tuesday approved a shift of $1 billion in funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) from fiscal year ’07 to ’06, providing relief to poor residents of states hit by high fuel-oil prices. If the House approves, half the money would be spent at the president’s discretion – Maine needs $10 million from this pot – with the other half going through LIHEAP’s formula, which will direct it south, to states that later this year will have air-conditioning costs.

If this sounds familiar, it is because the senators have been working on this issue since last fall, just as they have almost every fall for years, or in Sen. Snowe’s case, since she was Rep. Snowe.

Two problems will make this routine more difficult next year. The first is that by Congress using the ’07 money, Maine and all other states that depend on LIHEAP could have even less next winter. This year’s previous total was about $2 billion, so the added funding is significant. The reason for using next year’s money rather than more ambitiously finding new funding was evident from the second problem, the hostile position of opponents, mostly from southern states, who seem to dislike the program on principle and because its formulas favor northern states.

In response to a strong defense of LIHEAP by Sen. Snowe, for instance, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma read a list of earmarks for Maine that he apparently didn’t like – he had a little trouble pronouncing “Katahdin” and “Bowdoin” – with the point being that if Maine’s senators really cared about LIHEAP, they wouldn’t spend money on other projects. If Sen. Coburn was asserting that congressional funding worked by a senator saving up spending requests like Green Stamps and then cashing them in all at once, he has a unique view of government operations.

The second problem is that the funding formula for LIHEAP is broken into three tiers that, for the first $2 billion in funding, is based on the demographics of 1981. Growth in the South and West has greatly exceeded the Northeast since then, but in order for LIHEAP to help those regions equally, it would have to be funded at close to its authorized level of $5.1 billion. Northern senators have had little luck at persuading colleagues to increase funding to that level.

The problems could be more severe next year unless Congress can identify other sources of funding – Sen. Collins last fall proposed eliminating subsidies and tax breaks that benefit major oil companies and using the savings for LIHEAP – and states expand their attempts at efficiency to make the money they do receive go further.

Otherwise, all the players in this long-running drama will meet at the same place next year to perform the same frustrating exercise to less-certain results.

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