Obama Proposes Cuts in Low-Income Heating Assistance

By Beacon Staff

The Obama administration’s budget proposal for the 2012 fiscal year drew criticism from virtually every corner of the political spectrum upon its release last week. Republicans, predictably, said the $3.8 trillion budget would spend too much, compared to a proposal released by the House GOP that would spend $3.4 trillion.

“The president’s budget would put us squarely on track to double the size of the federal government,” Rep. Denny Rehberg said in a Feb. 14 statement. “This simply cannot be sustained.”

Many Democrats, including Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, blasted Obama’s proposal for spending priorities they see as neglecting the needs of rural areas in favor of urban ones. Several programs listed in Obama’s budget, which are widely used in Montana, would be cut: from caps on farm subsidies to aid for Indians. But the proposed cut provoking the greatest criticism by far would slash in half funding for a program that helps poor people pay their heating bills in the winter.

“Talk about misplaced, off-track priorities,” Tester said in a Feb. 9 statement. “I won’t support a budget that dumps billions of dollars into high-speed rail while cutting something as basic as heat for family homes across Montana and America. We need a common sense budget that creates jobs and cuts spending, but we can’t afford a budget that hurts rural America.”

The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) will see its funding cut from $5 billion to $2.5 billion under Obama’s proposal. In Montana, it could affect the roughly 29,500 people who currently participate in the program, which assists with heating bills between October and April.

In Flathead County, 2,307 households received more than $1.5 million in heating assistance payments last year, according to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services. In Lincoln County, 1,238 households received more than $1 million, and in Lake County, 712 households received $607,000 (though that does not include tribal recipients, who are funded through a separate program).

“It’s scary to think of what it’s going to do to people,” Kimberly DeWitt, who administers energy programs in Northwest Montana for Community Action Partnership, said. Last year she received 5,400 applications from the four-county area she covers, which includes Sanders County, a 35 percent increase over 2009. This year the applications have held steady, she said.

“For the most part it’s families or elderly people; it’s people that are on a fixed income just trying to make ends meet,” DeWitt added.

Political rhetoric on “wasteful spending” tends to be vague. But actual cuts to specific programs like LIHEAP are the reality many elected officials say is necessary to rein in the dire state of the federal budget. Despite the $33 billion Obama’s budget would cut in 2012, the deficit is still estimated to be $1.1 trillion. Republican plans to slash roughly $100 billion from this year’s budget still leave the current budget deficit at $1 trillion.

Both parties, thus far, have limited their cuts in federal spending to the non-defense discretionary portion of the budget, which amounts to about 15 percent of spending. The other roughly 20 percent of discretionary spending goes to defense, for which both parties are loathe to cut thus far.

Mandatory spending, in the form of entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, make up the rest of the budget, and largely account for the rising debt and deficits. They’re also popular with the public. While Republican leaders have begun to broach the subject of cutting entitlements, few specifics are on the table so far.

With other demands putting such stress on federal spending, supporters of programs like LIHEAP question why relatively small measures aimed at helping the poor tend to be among the first to go on the chopping block.

“Discretionary spending is such a small part of the budget, to go after the people who are truly suffering during this tough economic time is really difficult to see,” DeWitt said. “Deciding to cut the programs that are just helping them survive until they can get back to work is just not the best place to start.”

But defenders of the LIHEAP cut point out that all it does is set the program’s funding level back to where it was in 2008, before Obama took office. Among those is Rehberg, who in a phone interview from just off the House floor last week, would not state outright that he supports Obama’s proposed funding level for LIHEAP, saying only, “I want to take a look at it.”

Rehberg, however, noted that funding the program at $2.5 billion simply brings it back to its level three years ago.

“For some reason the doubling has become the new standard,” Rehberg said. “What the president’s trying to do is say, ‘Wait a minute.’”

Rehberg believes the program may be too lenient in its eligibility requirements in some states, and said a family of four with an income of more than $70,000 qualifies, in several northeastern states, for the assistance.

“I have a hard time figuring that $76,000 for a household in Connecticut is poor,” Rehberg said. “We need to make a determination: are their numbers too high?”

In Montana, according to documents provided by DeWitt, the income limit to receive heating assistance for a single person is $21,660, and $44,100 for a family of four.

“I have voted for low income energy assistance in the past,” Rehberg said. “We don’t want to cut anybody off who can’t afford to pay.”

Decisions over the level at which programs like LIHEAP can be funded are going to confront members of Congress, and the public, almost constantly as budget battles begin in earnest this year – making the impacts of what were once vaguely described spending cuts concrete in communities across Montana. But many see no alternative.

“It’s incumbent upon me to show to Montana taxpayers that for the taxes they’re paying, they’re getting the value they want and respect,” Rehberg said.

“Are the cuts going to be painful? Sure,” he added. “But right now, we don’t have the money. We’re in the third year of trillion dollar deficits.”

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