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Public Utility Commission eyes expanding program to help Mainers pay power bills

In this Tuesday, May 28, 2019 photo power lines power lines are seen in Pownal, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
In this Tuesday, May 28, 2019 photo power lines power lines are seen in Pownal, Maine.

State regulators are exploring ways to expand eligibility for a program that helps low-income households pay electricity bills. While the proposal won't provide immediate relief against rising electricity rates in Maine, state officials said the changes could streamline the process down the road.

In order to qualify for the state's Low Income Assistance Program for electricity bills, Maine residents must already be eligible for help with home heating costs through the program known as LIHEAP. But the Maine Public Utilities Commission is working with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to expand that pool. Under a proposal that is still in the early rulemaking process, people who are on Medicare, food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – commonly known as TANF – would also potentially qualify for help paying their electricity bills.

"We've estimated by expanding the program to include means-tested programs administered by DHHS, this will most likely double or more than double the number of households in Maine who are eligible to participate in the electric Low Income Assistance Program,” Derek Davidson, who oversees the Maine PUC’s consumer assistance division, told members of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee on Tuesday.

The Low Income Assistance Program provides income-eligible people with a credit on their electricity bills. Approximately 40,000 households in Maine currently receive assistance through the program. But in order to qualify, residents must apply for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) through their local community action program.

Davidson said confidentiality issues will have to be addressed before DHHS could share any information with the PUC. But he said DHHS has offered to send letters to individuals on TANF or other programs for low-income Mainers to inform them about their eligibility for electricity assistance. Those individuals would then be responsible for contacting their electricity supplier.

Meanwhile, Davidson said the commission is seeing an uptick in the number of calls from residents and businesses concerned about sharp jumps in their electricity bills. The supply rates for "standard offer" customers of Central Maine Power and Versant Power rose more than 80 percent this year largely because of rising natural gas prices, adding about $30 a month to the average bill.

"We also do expect that utilities, when they are dealing with customers in general that are having problems paying their bills, that they inform them of not only the Low-Income Assistance Program but also the arrearage management program,” he told lawmakers.

Eligibility for that arrearage program, which forgives all or part of past-due bills, is also tied to LIHEAP eligibility.