Federal heating funds released

The arrival of spring this week should signal warmer weather for Minnesotans, but new federal home heating funds will help pay the bills of the cold past.

The arrival of spring this week should signal warmer weather for Minnesotans, but new federal home heating funds will help pay the bills of the cold past.

The U.S. Health and Human Services Department on Thursday released $1 billion in additional aid under the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, after approval by President Bush.

It means an additional $29.1 million for Minnesota, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Thursday.

The HHS funds for Minnesota are part of an additional $1 billion that was approved by Congress and signed by President Bush this week, the Republican governor said. Minnesota will receive an additional $29,139,232 million -- bringing the total amount of energy assistance for this winter to $124,249,427.

The U.S. Senate and U.S. House approved the additional funds earlier this month, an item left over from the rush to pass spending bills in late December. Both Minnesota senators -- Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Mark Dayton -- had pushed for a vote on the extra funds.


Coleman and two other GOP senators successfully secured a commitment from Senate leadership to move forward with additional LIHEAP funding in the new year, after the confirmation vote on Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.

"Though it falls far short of our state's overall needs, I am pleased that Congress approved $1 billion in additional LIHEAP funding," Dayton said Thursday. "This aid will help Minnesota's neediest families and seniors cope with their bills and get through the rest of the season."

So far, in fiscal year 2006, only 145,859 of Minnesota's 450,000 eligible households have received heating assistance from LIHEAP -- less than a third of those eligible. Minnesota has received $81.6 million LIHEAP funding in fiscal 2006, Dayton said.

The additional $1 billion brings total LIHEAP funding to $3.16 billion for 2006 -- nearly $2 billion below the federally authorized level, Dayton said. Dayton has co-sponsored four amendments to fully fund LIHEAP at the authorized level of $5.1 billion, but all were defeated by the Republican-controlled Senate.

In his fiscal 2007 budget proposal, Bush allocates only $1.78 billion for LIHEAP, the DFLer said.

Coleman earlier this month said the additional $1 billion will be split with $500 million in additional LIHEAP formula funding and $500 million in LIHEAP contingency funds that the Bush administration can use to meet immediate needs.

"Minnesota is one of the coldest states in the country, and natural gas prices have risen dramatically in the past year," the Minnesota Republican said. "Natural gas users saw double digit increases last year, and families on average are likely to experience up to a 35 percent increase this year.

"With over 60 percent of all LIHEAP households in Minnesota heating their homes with natural gas, families across my state are facing a tangible burden as heating bills continue to rise," Coleman added. "These costs hit low-income households and fixed income seniors the hardest, a blow LIHEAP is designed to soften."


On March 1, Coleman asked Bush in a letter urging him to immediately release the remaining balance of funds in the LIHEAP contingency fund. On Feb. 13, Coleman held a hearing in St. Paul on the volatility of the natural gas market.

"This winter's heating costs have been higher, leaving low-income Minnesotans in need of help paying their heating bills," Pawlenty said Thursday. "Working with our federal partners to provide this additional funding means more assistance for more families and seniors. Some of this new funding will be allocated to weatherizing homes, so less energy is used and heating bills are lowered in future winters."

LIHEAP helps low-income customers pay their heating bills through grant money paid directly to the utility company on behalf of the customer. People can apply for the aid locally through the Bi-County Community Action Program.

Earlier this winter, Pawlenty announced $13 million of emergency funding for the state heating assistance program for eligible families, seniors and disabled Minnesotans. The funding was in addition to federal LIHEAP funds.

Minnesota LIHEAP helps pay home heating costs for households with the lowest incomes and highest energy costs. Last year the program served 118,000 households with an average assistance amount of $400 per household, Pawlenty said. The program expects to serve more this year with an average assistance amount of $500 per household, a 25 percent increase.

The GOP governor in November announced initiatives to prepare for an expected high-energy-cost home heating season this winter in light of skyrocketing prices for home heating oil and natural gas.

They included:

-- Promotion of energy conservation programs provided by Minnesota's utility companies to help customers save money and energy. Programs may include weatherization kits, energy audits, insulating attics and sealing attic bypasses.


-- Making more money available for energy conservation in homes, schools and nursing homes by accelerating spending on energy conservation and efficiency. The state Department of Commerce approved an additional $2.1 million in utility spending for energy conservation programs aimed at saving natural gas.

-- State buildings to lead by example by cutting energy usage by 10 percent. Pawlenty issued an executive order requiring all state buildings to reduce their energy use by 10 percent.

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