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    Sunday, September 25, 2022

    Republicans petition for special session to bolster energy assistance

    State Republican legislative leaders are petitioning for a special session to increase funding and expand eligibility for energy assistance.

    On Monday at the State Capitol Building in Hartford, House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, and Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, defended criticisms from Democrats that the GOP is treating people having to heat their homes in the winter as a political opportunity in the midst of election season.

    “This is an issue that needs to be addressed now in order to have a properly running program,” Candelora said. “They can try to discredit us by claiming it’s political, but the reality is there’s a real need out there and people are suffering. I would argue they’re the ones being political by not addressing it.”

    Funding from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a federal program that assists low-income households with home energy bills, is down this year because there are no more pandemic relief dollars.

    The Connecticut Energy Assistance Program, which is funded by the federal LIHEAP block grant, is meant to lower energy costs for state households who make at or below 60% of the state median income of $76,465 for a family of four. It received $82 million in 2019 — before the pandemic — and between $88 and $140 million in successive years until 2022. Lawmakers approved a $79-million plan for 2023 in August by a vote of 43-1.

    The average price of home heating oil has fluctuated from less than $2 in May of 2020, to almost $6 in May of 2022, and is expected to go down to about $4.50 in December of this year. More than 96,000 households will need heating assistance for this upcoming winter, according to the Department of Social Services, an almost 20% increase from 2019.

    At the time of last month’s vote, Democrats stifled a Republican amendment to supplement the $79.2 million in expected federal LIHEAP funds, which would have brought the total home energy assistance to $191.5 million.

    State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and state Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, said in a statement at the time that "The Republican amendment offered today was both illegal and moot, since no changes to the LIHEAP funding amounts and qualifications can be made at this point. Also, contrary to Republican assertions, it would take a special session of the full legislature to allocate any such unassigned ARPA funds under state control ...”

    In order to force a special session, at least 50% of members from each state legislative chamber must sign on to the petition.

    “If we are successful at hitting the numbers, I believe the Secretary of the State is authorized to call us into special session to address the … huge shortfall in LIHEAP funding,” Candelora said. He and Kelly pushed for a special session by Sept. 30 because people have started applying for energy assistance.

    Candelora said there are about 40 signatures in the House and 10 in the Senate. Democrats have yet to join in.

    Democrats, including Gov. Ned Lamont, have argued that the state should wait to find out whether the federal government will allocate additional funds to energy assistance.

    U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat, have pushed for more funding to be included for LIHEAP in recent weeks. Last week, Courtney wrote to the U.S. House and Senate Appropriations Committees, “urging them to include additional funding” for LIHEAP “in the upcoming government funding package.”

    “Even under normal circumstances, LIHEAP provides vital assistance for families across the country who need assistance with their heating and cooling costs and their home energy bills,” Courtney and New England delegation members wrote in the letter. “With the current energy crisis in New England, it is even more important that Congress meets the needs of families that rely on LIHEAP to afford their energy bills.”

    On Monday, Democrats stuck with a Sept. 1 statement from Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, in which they expressed interest in holding a special session after the election “in an atmosphere of governing rather than that of a political campaign.”

    "We are hopeful the federal government will infuse this program with more funding and we encourage Connecticut Republicans to contact Congressional Republicans who were opposed to giving Connecticut the very money they are trying to allocate,” Looney and Duff said at the time. “However, this is the posturing political game Republicans frequently play. They oppose sending federal money to Connecticut, then don't propose a budget to spend the federal money, and then once elections roll around they demand more federal funding.”

    s.spinella@theday.com

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