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Maine Housing director says emergency funding ‘definitely necessary’ for heating assistance

Heating Fuel
Robert F. Bukaty
In this Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015 photo, Paul Dorion, a driver for the Downeast Energy, prepares to deliver heating oil to a home in Portland, Maine. New England, the region most reliant on heating oil, is getting a huge windfall this winter from the big drop in oil prices.

The director of Maine Housing is reiterating his support for an energy assistance bill that stalled in the Legislature last week, saying the issue is not whether his agency has money to help low-income families but how much oil or kerosene that money will buy.

Republicans in the Maine Senate blocked passage of an emergency bill that contained $50 million in additional funding for heating assistance programs because they wanted a public hearing and a committee review of the bill. While Republicans said they understand the urgency of the situation, they criticized Democrats and Gov. Janet Mills for trying to pass a nearly $500 million spending bill on the first day of the legislative session and pointed out that the state’s Home Energy Assistance Program, often referred to as LIHEAP, was clearly not in danger of running out of cash.

"First off, we've heard from Maine Housing that things are funded through July for the most vulnerable,” Republican Minority Leader Sen. Trey Stewart of Presque Isle told reporters afterward. Stewart repeated that LIHEAP was “fully funded through July 2023” in an op-ed published over the weekend in the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal.

Dan Brennan, director of the Maine State Housing Authority, said that is technically correct: LIHEAP has money. The question is how far it will go when fuel prices remain much higher than last year.

"The buying power is greatly reduced,” Brennan told Maine Public on Monday. “And our concern is that because of that, more people will be facing an emergency situation because they simply won't be getting as much fuel as they did last year."

The typical household who qualifies for LIHEAP receives about $800 to $1,100 in fuel to help get them through the winter. Last year, that was enough to buy 254 gallons of heating oil or 213 gallons of kerosene. But Maine Housing estimates that, at the current prices, the same amount of funding will buy 85 gallons less heating oil and 97 gallons less kerosene for those households this winter.

Heating oil was averaging $4.74 a gallon last week, about 50% higher than December of last year. And the per-gallon price for kerosene, which is used by households with outdoor tanks, was still sitting just below $7 last week. Brennan said the additional $40 million in Gov. Janet Mills' emergency energy assistance bill would allow households to receive nearly the same amount of fuel as last year.

"Yeah, it's definitely necessary and we have been asking both our state and federal officials to consider something like this,” Brennan said. “That's been our position since the summertime."

The bulk of the funding in the $474 million emergency energy assistance bill would have paid for $450 “relief payment” checks to more than 850,000 Maine taxpayers to help them cover the rising costs for heating, electricity and other necessities. The bill also proposed $21 million in emergency housing assistance to help families who stand to lose federal COVID-era assistance in the coming weeks.

While Republicans are pushing the Legislature's Democratic leadership to hold a public hearing and committee review of the bill, it is unclear if that will happen before the Legislature reconvenes in January. Meanwhile, Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic Congressman Jared Golden are leading a push to include an additional $500 million to LIHEAP in a budget bill that is making its way through Congress.