While the weather may be getting a bit warmer, the prospects for the next heating season are quite cold – especially for older and low income Vermonters. As advocates, we are reaching out urgently to lawmakers to convey our deep concern for the tens of thousands of Vermonters who rely on LIHEAP (Low Income Heating Assistance Program) to stay warm during Vermont's cold and long winters.
Sadly, the federal government has cut its support of this program by 40% over the last few years. We are fortunate that the Shumlin Administration has stepped up to the plate at the last minute in each of the last few years to partially offset these federal cuts. Looking ahead, the Governor has offered just $6 million in his budget for next winter. However, it is unclear whether he or the Emergency Board will be there to further supplement that amount next November.
Clearly, $6 million is significantly less than the $8.8 million in state support appropriated for the current heating season – which fell far short of the need anyway. Moreover, we have seen the added pressure of $900,000 moved to the crisis program, which eats away at the seasonal program seniors so rely on. And now, the federal sequester could well exacerbate the program by another $1 million. This is a critical program that helps our poorest citizens keep the heat on and it needs a sustainable base of funding.
As advocates, we have been working hard with the Natural Resources Committee to ensure that Vermont gets the best bang for the money it uses to support LIHEAP. This is an urgent appeal to legislators because we could easily be as much as $5 million short of this year's LIHEAP funding levels.
We implore our lawmakers to keep with tradition and, at the very least, set aside sufficient monies for the contingency that this program will run out of money as we approach next winter. We understand the challenges our legislators face this budget season, but our most vulnerable citizens simply cannot afford further cuts. No Vermonter should have to choose between heating their home, putting food on the table or buying the medicine they need to remain healthy. Let’s do the right thing and honor our commitment to provide this very modest assistance.
Greg Marchildon Gini Milkey (Virginia A.)
State Director Executive Director
AARP Vermont COVE