A federal program that helps low income families pay their heating bill is coming under intense budget pressure.
The Low Income Heating Assistance Program sent Minnesota more than $152 million last year. That money helped 172,000 households, including many seniors, the disabled and the poor, pay their heating bills. The average grant from the LIHEAP program was just over $500 for the winter.
But with austerity the new buzzword in Washington, the program's funding is drying up fast — just as many households prepare for higher heating bills.
Minnesota received $73 million from the program last month. Federal officials usually make transfusions of cash for the program throughout the winter, but state Commerce Commissioner Michael Rothman isn't optimistic that more money from Washington is on the way.
"It sounds like what's happening at the federal level is that we're not likely to get the levels we received last year," he said.
This year, the Minnesota Department of Commerce hopes to provide heating help to about 130,000 households, a drop of more than 20 percent from last year.
The average grant size will also fall, from the $500 last year to $400 this year.
Even as unemployment remains high and poverty is rising, the Obama Administration requested $2.6 billion in funding for the program this year, considerably less than the $5.1 billion it received last year. The administration cited lower energy costs than previous years as one justification.
That's unacceptable to U.S. Sen. Al Franken, who wants as much funding as possible for the program. He called it "a last resort for families and seniors who can't afford to heat their homes."
Franken and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, both Democrats, are working with a bipartisan group of senators from mostly cold-weather states to maintain the program's funding.
Despite the overall turn to austerity in Washington, the heating assistance effort is one of the few programs that the Republican-led House and the Democratic-controlled Senate agree should get more money than the President requested.
Congress plans to spend about $3.5 billion for the program — if the two parties can manage to pass a long-term government spending bill. That would mean more money for Minnesota's heating program as the winter sets in.
The series of short term spending bills passed by Congress is particularly hard on the heating program, which gives out much of its money early in the cold months, said Brandon Avila a spokesman for the advocacy group Campaign for Home Energy Assistance.
"This inability to get a budget done by the fiscal year has really had a unique impact on the LIHEAP program compared to some of the other programs that can live on an apportionment before the Congress makes the final determination on the budget," he said.
Even if this Congress appropriates more money for heating help, the program is likely to face cuts going forward, especially if automatic spending reductions triggered by the failed Congressional super-committee begin as scheduled in 2013.
Unlike other safety programs such as Medicaid and food stamps, which are exempt from those possible cuts, the heating program wouldn't be, Avila said.
"You have to look at a program like LIHEAP and you've got to look at some others and you have to decide which ones are the core of our social safety net," he said. "We would make the case that LIHEAP is in that category, even during the tough budget time."
With the funding outlook uncertain, anyone who needs help with their heating bill should apply as soon as possible, said Rothman, the state commerce commissioner.
"We will do everything we can with whatever resources we have to meet the needs and do what we can with it," he said.
Congressional leaders from both parties hope to wrap up work on the government spending bills by mid-December.