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Pioneer Editorial: Heating aid may need a winter boost

Good news and bad news. As the days become colder and snow seems near, people are now concerned about heating their homes for the winter.

First the bad news.

Low-income people and seniors who can't afford to heat their homes are applying in droves for heating assistance from agencies that distribute the aid, Low-Income Home Energy Assistant Program. They are struggling with the recession and find financial resources for the winter to be bleak.

The demand is outstripping the amount of LIHEAP funds available, USA Today reported Monday. LIHEAP funding is expected to be about $5.1 billion in fiscal 2010. That's the same as 2009. About 7.5 million people used the federal aid in fiscal 2009, which ended Sept. 30.

Because of the recession, that number is expected to increase but not the LIHEAP funding. That could present a dilemma for those who must decide between heating their homes and buying food or medicine.

The good news is that energy prices are expected to decline this winter, where predictions are for a milder winter.

People using natural gas should see their lowest bills in five years, The Associated Press reports. Predictions call for savings from $20 to $280 on their bills from last year. In fact, the Energy Information Administration predicts heating bills should be about 8 percent less than last year.

The nearly 58 million households that use natural gas stand to save about $105 compared with last year, and propane users will get an even bigger break -- as much as $280. More modest reductions, $20 to $60, are expected for people who use electricity or fuel oil to heat their homes, the agency said.

The problem, however, is that the recession will send more poor people to the agencies that distribute federal aid, negating the effect of lower prices and putting pressure on LIHEAP funding.

As a cold-weather state in the North, LIHEAP is an important subsidy for those who cannot afford to heat their homes in the winter. The aid also allows low-income families to weatherize their homes, conserving what heat they can afford.

We know Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-7th District, and Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District, are advocates for LIHEAP and have fought for additional funding in past years. We urge Sen. Al Franken, DFL-Minn., to also become a champion of LIHEAP and the benefit if provides to those who are on fixed incomes and can't handle the recession, even though energy prices might be declining.

As we now head into winter, it's a situation that must be monitored and aid added as needed.