Maine has no money left over from last year to help its poor heat their homes, and every day the government shutdown continues adds to the delay in getting Low-Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP) vouchers out the door. There is no plan as yet for local funding to bridge the gap caused by the House majority’s refusal to fund the government.
“We’re very concerned but we’re not in panic mode at this point,” said Deborah Turcotte, spokeswoman for the Maine State Housing Authority (MSHA). “Usually we would know by October 1 what the federal allocation was going to be, we’d get our funding in November, and seven to ten days after that the assistance would start being distributed.” The shutdown pushes that whole process deeper into the winter. Two weeks into the shutdown, “we’re 11 days behind schedule already,” Turcotte said, “and it is getting colder.” Republican House leaders announced a plan this morning that could extend the shutdown for another six weeks.
Maine residents who expect to need LIHEAP help should still put in their applications, Turcotte said, and MSHA is shifting deadlines for paperwork around the moving target of a possible government shutdown end date. MSHA distributes LIHEAP funding to more than 700 separate heating fuel providers on behalf of tens of thousands of people who make less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $35,000 per year for a family of four. Families with very young or very old members who are vulnerable to hypothermia can receive the aid at slightly higher income levels. The program served 55,000 Maine households last winter, and without the vouchers that cover a third or more of their heating costs those people will face tough choices. “They’re looking at either sitting in a cold home or cutting back on food or medicine,” Turcotte said.
Even if Turcotte knew how much MSHA will have to spend on heating aid, she doubts that a bridge loan from the state treasury would be forthcoming. “Maine’s budget is pretty stretched. There’s been no discussion with the state of footing the bill temporarily for LIHEAP,” Turcotte said. States are allowed to carry over up to 10 percent of the previous year’s LIHEAP money, but Maine spent every dollar it had for fiscal year 2013.
Ending the shutdown is Plan A, and there is no Plan B. “We’re hoping that people have plans in place to stay warm until this assistance comes in,” Turcotte said. “Whether they go and stay with friends, close off parts of their homes, or just wear extra sweaters.” According to the Farmer’s Almanac, she said, it’s going to be a very snowy winter.
“We’re delaying the program, but winter is not delaying itself,” said Turcotte. “The houses here are old, they’re drafty.” MSHA used to spend some of its LIHEAP money on making those drafty old houses more energy efficient and better insulated, an investment that helps people stay warmer while spending less on fuel. But the second wave of cuts brought on by sequestration meant the agency had to drop those weatherization programs last year, Turcotte said.
Even before sequestration hit, LIHEAP had been cut by a quarter for fiscal year 2012. Nationwide, the program has been cut by about a third since 2011, reducing the proportion of heating costs covered by the vouchers from 42 percent to less than 35 percent. Those cuts, combined with rising heating fuel prices and an icy winter last year, put residents in a vice. Fuel suppliers don’t want anyone to freeze to death, of course, and some let their customers run up hundreds of dollars in debts, but “there’s only going to be so far that they are able to do that,” Turcotte said. “They are trying to help their neighbors, but they are also trying to run a business.”