Lawmakers must stand firm on heating aid

By:  The Spokesman-Review

Among the more unfortunate budget cuts coming out of Washington, D.C., is one that targets a program that helps low-income people keep their homes heated. The deep freeze for LIHEAP (Low Income Heating and Assistance Program) seems inevitable, as Congress looks to pare spending to control the widening deficit, but what the Washington state delegation should not accept is a bid by Southern politicians to divert funding to help their constituents with air conditioning bills.

They can try to start a LICAP (for cooling assistance), but they ought to leave LIHEAP alone.

A bill in the House would change the funding formula for energy bill assistance, with the goal of taking a larger share of the money and diverting it to warm-weather states, such as Florida, Texas and Arizona. LIHEAP was intended to help with heating bills. It has already been compromised to aid with cooling bills. But this step goes too far.

As is, there isn’t enough money to help all of the people who qualify for heating assistance. These are households that fall below 125 percent of the poverty line. Most of the aid goes to the elderly, the disabled or to families with small children.

A few years back, Congress boosted funding to reverse the long-standing trend of fewer households being helped each year. But the Great Recession has gutted government revenues. Last year, LIHEAP helped 148,211 households in Washington state, according to the LIHEAP Advocacy Center. In 2008, it was 68,032. The president’s budget calls for a reduction that essentially returns the program to 2008 service levels. Congress may add more money, but few people believe that the program will avoid significant cuts.

That’s all the more reason for the Washington delegation to dig in and fight this Southern-fried assault on the funding formula, which would deepen cutbacks here. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, who is leading the charge at this point, says the House bill could cost the state nearly $30 million. In Spokane County alone, that would mean an estimated 4,000 fewer households getting help.

A Senate plan that would preserve the funding formula is the one the state’s delegation needs to rally around.

Washington state is well aware of the politics behind funding formulas, since it gets the short end of Medicare’s peculiar arithmetic as a “reward” for being more efficient in delivering health care. Meanwhile, states like Florida are given more money per Medicare patient for identical services. Attempts by the Washington delegation to rectify this obvious unfairness – and budgetary insanity – have been rebuffed.

The cold, hard fact is that this energy assistance was gained – and has been sustained – through political heavy lifting. Northwest politicians would be pushovers if they caved on LIHEAP, while the Medicare disparity was allowed to continue.

Now if Southern politicians would warm to a compromise, that would be another matter. In the meantime, they need to keep their hands off LIHEAP.