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As winter nears, state and federal lawmakers concerned about energy prices

With cost increases in natural gas, electricity and heating oil, Connecticut officials and lawmakers say federal heating assistance is critical for families on low incomes. "Certainly in the state of Connecticut, as cold as it gets in the winter, we cannot leave our elderly, our vulnerable, our children or even our working families without shelter, light, heat, or water to wash their hands,” said Leticia Colon de Mejias, founder and CEO of Energy Efficient Solutions.
Tyler Russell
/
Connecticut Public
With cost increases in natural gas, electricity and heating oil, Connecticut officials and lawmakers say federal heating assistance is critical for families with low incomes. "Certainly in the state of Connecticut, as cold as it gets in the winter, we cannot leave our elderly, our vulnerable, our children or even our working families without shelter, light, heat or water to wash their hands,” said Leticia Colon de Mejias, founder and CEO of Energy Efficient Solutions.

Three federal lawmakers from Connecticut are among those who are asking Congress for emergency funding to help low-income earners pay for heat and electricity.

U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, along with U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, all signed a letter earlier this month calling on Congress to appropriate more money to what’s called LIHEAP -- the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. At a news conference Monday, Blumenthal said the need is urgent, and it will become more so as cold weather sets in.

“They are people who will be hurting dramatically without an emergency allocation of LIHEAP money,” Blumenthal said. “Now is the time to do it.”

The federal government says natural gas prices are up 38% from this time last year. Electricity is up over 13%. And heating oil is up 98%. Blumenthal and his colleagues said the rising cost of energy will lead families with low incomes to choose between heat, food, medicines and rent.

“Ultimately, energy is an issue of supply and demand,” said Leticia Colon de Mejias, founder and CEO of Energy Efficient Solutions. “It’s also a matter of safety and human rights and health. Certainly in the state of Connecticut, as cold as it gets in the winter, we cannot leave our elderly, our vulnerable, our children or even our working families without shelter, light, heat or water to wash their hands.”

Blumenthal says the pending federal budget includes money for LIHEAP. But he’s calling for more.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers held a hearing Monday on how Connecticut plans to use federal heating assistance funding for people who have a tough time paying their heating bills. Top Republican lawmakers say the heating assistance proposal from the governor's administration would be a major reduction from what was offered last year. But state Social Services Commissioner Deidre Gifford says last year’s LIHEAP funding was unusually generous because of one-time pandemic relief.

“So you see a bump in funding, but we know that funding is not renewed for federal fiscal year ’23,” she said. “So we are returning to our historical levels of baseline block grant funding.”

Gifford says the agency is making it easier to qualify for the heating assistance program by allowing people to apply online. People are also automatically considered eligible if they qualify for other state aid programs.

Greater Hartford Legal Aid attorney Alison Weir said the plan reduces the number of benefit levels for heating assistance, and she said that camouflages a dramatic reduction in benefits compared with previous years.

“We still remain concerned that the benefit level consolidation mostly impacts the lowest-income folks the hardest,” Weir said. “We wish that the department can take a look at that and see if there is something they can do to make sure that the lowest-income folks really get as much as they possibly can.”

Republican lawmakers have called the Lamont administration plans insufficient. Their leaders say they want Democrats to use some of the surplus to provide more funding.

Jeff Cohen started in newspapers in 2001 and joined Connecticut Public in 2010, where he worked as a reporter and fill-in host. In 2017, he was named news director. Then, in 2022, he became a senior enterprise reporter.
Matt Dwyer is a producer for Where We Live and a reporter and midday host for Connecticut Public's news department.

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