Legislative Report 1/31/2014 - Beating the Cold

With the super-cold temperatures we have been having lately, this past weekend’s cold but sunny weather was a welcome break.  I took advantage of it and brought in more wood from my woodpile.  I, like many other Vermonters, am lucky to have a wood stove to supplement my oil heat.  Burning wood, along with turning down my thermostat, has saved quite a bit of heating oil despite sub-zero temperatures for extended periods of time.  As I pulled the sled across the yard and up the steps I got to thinking about how other less fortunate families and individuals have to deal with the cold.

The most immediate challenge when temperatures drop is how to take care of people who do not have a permanent home.  The person standing at the end of I-189 by Shelburne Road asking for a handout; the Vietnam vet who usually lives in a tent somewhere in the woods around the Intervale; the family that is living in a homeless shelter because the breadwinner lost his/her job and can no longer afford to pay the rent.  Less immediate, but still important, are those who do have homes but are struggling with their heating bills. For someone who hasn’t had to struggle with situations like these, it is easy to look away and think about something else.  We can ignore the inconvenient realities that blemish our otherwise comfortable world.  But we are our brothers’ keeper, and a moral conscience dictates that those who can, the majority of us, must help.

As a society we have many vehicles to provide assistance to those who need it in such emergencies, from the non-profits like COTS and the Red Cross to federal and state assistance like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).  LIHEAP, a program that provides emergency heating fuel to individuals and families who have or are about to run out of fuel during the winter, has been hit hard by the federal budget cuts over the last 3 years.  This program is available to families whose income is less than 125% of the federal poverty level.   While no state funds were contributed to the LIHEAP prior to federal fiscal year 2005, in recent years, federal funds have steadily declined from a high of $38.6 million in 2009 to $17 million this year.  As federal funding declined, Vermont has supplemented the program with additional funds to try to keep at least $25M available.  The number of Vermont families served has consistently been around 27,000, with a spike to more than 45,000 in 2011 at the peak of the recession. 

As more of the burden of funding this program falls to Vermont, the question becomes how to fund it and whether a better solution can be found to address the problem.  With most low income families living in poorly insulated housing, much of their heating dollars literally fly out the window.  The key to increasing the effectiveness of LIHEAP funds is to reduce heat losses, that is, to weatherize homes.  The Comprehensive Energy Plan (CEP) of 2011 called for 80,000 homes to be weatherized by 2020.  Weatherization assistance has been available through Efficiency Vermont for all income levels, but especially for low income homeowners.  However, funding for weatherization programs has been inadequate and the state is currently about 2 years behind on reaching this CEP goal.  A study committee recommended that reaching the goal would require about $24M/year until 2020.  Funding for 2014 through a one-time source of money is $11M.

Last year Governor Shumlin proposed a tax on break-open lottery tickets sold at bars and social clubs to raise $17M, including $6M for weatherization programs.  The House Natural Resources & Energy Committee proposed a half-cent per gallon tax on fuel oil to raise $6M.  Both ideas were rejected by the legislature, the first as unfeasible, and the second as politically unacceptable.  As this session of the legislature moves forward, I will continue working to increase funding for weatherization and give a high priority for these services to LIHEAP recipients so that their future needs for assistance are reduced.