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Heat Subsidies in Spotlight after Cold Spell

The nation is emerging from a deep freeze but with winter just beginning, the federal safety-net program for home heating becomes all the more important – and there’s less money for it now than last year. 

The 2011 Budget Control Act, which cuts discretionary spending, reduced the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program or LIHEAP program by about $155 million in Fiscal Year 2013, to $3.3 billion.

For Americans living from paycheck to paycheck or on a fixed income, LIHEAP “helps many of them get through the winter and some of them in fact get through the cooling season in the summer,” said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. His group represents state officials in charge of administering the subsidies which go to more than six million low-income households.

LIHEAP spending – unlike many other safety-net programs – isn’t mandatory or automatic spending; it can vary from year to year. LIHEAP spending nearly tripled from 2002 to 2010, peaking at more than $5 billion that year.

In November, the Department of Health and Human Services released nearly $3 billion in funding for LIHEAP based on the amount approved in the bill which funds the federal government through Jan. 15.

But senators especially from Northeastern and Midwestern states, are urging President Barack Obama in his Fiscal Year 2015 budget blueprint to seek $4.7 billion in LIHEAP funding for the new fiscal year that starts in October.