Heating Assistance, The Ant and The Grasshopper

By Kevin Joseph Ryan

We all know the story of the Ant and the Grasshopper. The grasshopper spent the summer playing and frolicking, while the ant worked and struggled to get ready for the winter. When winter came, the Ant burrowed into his house and relaxed, until the Grasshopper, unprepared, knocked on the door and pleaded with the Ant to help him through the cold and snow. It snows every year in Vermont, and we need to prepare for it, and even to help our neighbors when they ask. We need to prepare in advance for this.

The Shumlin Administration, knowing the Federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funding has been in trouble this past year, prepared to make up the shortfall at the state level. As he announced that help at a press conference yesterday, October 23, Governor Peter Shumlin gave the appearance of having been an unprepared grasshopper rather than the sturdy ant he had been.

Governor Shumlin, accompanied by Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding along with others, announced that the State of Vermont would be meeting with the Legislative Emergency Board on October 30 to release and appropriate $8.8 million in supplemental funds to maintain the benefit granted for the LIHEAP Program, which provides both heating and cooling assistance to low-income people. This event was held at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity in Burlington.

The average benefit given out to Vermonters during the winter of 2011-2012 was $900 dollars and would be reduced to $540 without such state supplementation, according to the Governor’s press release. This is number is plausible, given the approximate 5% increase in residents (from 27,100 to 28,000) demand for heating assistance this year couple with a 7% increase in fuel oil pricing (from 3.60 to 3.88 p/gal). However, given that number takes into account only the federal dollars without any state funds, which were provided last year as well, the more accurate average benefit would be closer to $675, a 25% reduction, rather than the 40%, which Shumlin noted at that event.

At the CVOEO event, Shumlin told the press that, “As we all know, for the last two years, our federal funding to help subsidize low-income folks to get them the oil they need to stay warm, has been level funded. This is how the math works… This year we’re getting 19.5 million dollars from the Federal Government.” When asked how he intended to fund additional expenditure, Shumlin added, “We’re going to take 7 million dollars from the money that the legislature and we wisely put aside to address federal cuts…We’re going to take 900,000 dollars in excesses in the gross receipts tax that was dedicated to the weatherization fund that we think we can get by without.”

To be clear, we are now in the Federal Government’s fiscal year of 2013 and will be receiving 19.5 million dollars to be distributed in Vermont in the form of a block grant. We received the same amount last year in FY 2012. While Vermont received much more the previous three years, we received far less in prior years and the temporary increase was part of the federal stimulus, which is no longer available.

The federal level of funding for the winter of 2011-2012 was determined late in the year, which led to the Shumlin Administration funding the program with $6.1 million and to calls from the Vermont congressional delegation for more program funding as late as December 2011. In February of 2012, Barack Obama called for a 50% reduction to the LIHEAP program in his FY 2013 budget proposal, leading the Congressmen to renew the call for more funds. A concurrent resolution of Congress agreed to July 31 this year called for essentially level funding of all federal spending, and this was signed into law September 28, 2012.

The simple version of all this is as follows. After three years of almost doubled funding of LIHEAP, the Federal Government cut the purse strings and Vermont got a 25% reduction in funding from $26 million to $19.5 for winter 2011-2012. The State supplemented this cut with $6.1 million and in early 2012, Shumlin requested that the Legislature set aside $7 million for exactly this purpose again for the upcoming winter. Congress let us know in July that we’d be getting the same funding this year as last and now, just before the start of winter, Shumlin is charging to the rescue by announcing he’s actually going to use the money he planned to use all along to keep poor Vermonters warm.

When asked why this hadn’t been dealt with before the late fall, Jeb Spaulding had this to say to TNR, “We didn’t know what the funding level from Congress was going to be for the fiscal year we just entered starting October First, until quite recently, like in the last month.” Shumlin then added, “To answer the question, you’re incorrect. We did not have that number…we’ve been scrambling to come up with the difference. ” However, when asked for a reaction to this announcement, State Representative Mike Herbert (R-Vernon) told us, “It sounds like they had the money in the bank, waiting.”

None of this additional expenditure has been authorized yet by the Legislative Emergency Board, but that outcome seems rather likely. It is politically difficult to turn down elderly and poor Vermonters for fuel assistance just as it begins to get cold, rather than turning them down in July, which is when, for instance, the State of Illinois issued their LIHEAP state adjustment plan. You have to admire the timing of the Governor, the skill of making an ant look like a grasshopper and either way, smelling like a rose.