Shutdown looms over energy assistance program

Minnesotans who need help paying their energy bills will receive that help despite the government shutdown, state officials say. But if Congress fails to pass a budget bill after the first of the year, some who depend on the heating subsidies may have trouble finding the funds to pay utilities.

The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program served about 155,000 households in Minnesota in the last fiscal year, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, which administers the state's program.

Commissioner Michael Rothman said his agency has carried over enough money from last year to fund the program until the end of December.

"The Department of Commerce administers these funds, then the funds go out as grants to local agencies," Rothman said. "So long as we have sufficient funds for now to keep it going, we should be fine."

Because Minnesota's program is administered by state workers, rather than federal workers, the state will still sign up applicants during the federal shutdown.

"The program runs throughout those months, and we try to make sure we get the applications in now through all the winter months so we can help people pay for their bills," Rothman said.

The state received $109 million in energy assistance funds during the 2013 fiscal year. Minnesotans received on average around $500, according to the agency.

In order to be eligible for the Energy Assistance Program, applicants must make less than 50 percent of the state's median income or 110 percent of poverty, whichever is greater. In Minnesota that would be about $36,659 for a household of three. Minnesota residents can apply by calling 1-800-657-3710.

CenterPoint Energy spokesperson Becca Virden said her company also expects a continued shutdown to compel more people to claim protection under the state's cold weather rule. The rule prevents residents who are unable to pay their bills in full from having their heat disconnected between Oct. 15 and April 15.

"You're talking about some businesses and customers this year who aren't receiving funds or money for one reason or another because of the shutdown," Virden said. "Give us a call, evoke that cold weather rule protection if you are in a situation that you haven't been in before."

Customers can evoke the cold weather rule by contacting their utility. Virden said debt accumulated during the winter can snowball, and that some customers are still paying off last winter's bills.

"We have learned that it is stressful for our customers to get behind on their bills, so they're going to see these bills accumulate," Virden said. "It's another area of stress that they can eliminate by contacting their utility provider."

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