The Trump administration has released virtually all the remaining heating assistance funds for this winter — except for the $37 million it intends to divert to fight the coronavirus, officials said.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced the second release of funds totaling $381 million on Friday, bringing welcome news to northern-tier states. That lifts the annual distribution of funding from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to $3.74 billion.
The $37 million that remains on hold accounts for about 1 percent of the energy program’s budget, said Mark Wolfe, of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association in Washington. While the figure may seem small, the proposed transfer of funds would result in the elimination of assistance for about 75,000 low-income families this year, he said.
“The funds are urgently needed to help families pay remaining home heating bills as well as cooling bills this summer. There must be a better way to pay for programs to address the coronavirus than taking resources away from some of the nation’s poorest families,” Wolfe said.
In Maine, independent Sen. Angus King called the administration plan to divert energy program funding “unconscionable” and Republican Sen. Susan Collins tweeted that it was the “wrong approach.”
“I think it’s unconscionable to be taking money out of people’s pockets that they need to protect themselves in the middle of a Maine winter,” King told The Associated Press in a statement.
Members of Congress have been briefed on the energy program funding that would be part of Republican President Donald Trump’s proposal for an additional $2.5 billion to defend against the virus. Democratic and Republican lawmakers have said that the overall funding request is inadequate. They have signaled they will provide substantially more funding.
“My concern is that the administration is in a little bit in disarray, and they’re playing catch-up and dipping into sorely needed funds we already designated to identified needs to compensate for this. I think the next step is for Congress to try to get some data on exactly what is needed, where it’s needed, and then figure out where it’s going to come from,” King said.
Members of Congress have been protective of the energy assistance program, rejecting the Trump administration’s efforts to eliminate it. The program is especially important in the Northeast, where states are more reliant on oil to heat homes. The program also helps warm-weather states keep people cool in the summer.
The Trump administration has contended the program is unnecessary and rife with fraud, but program supporters say he’s wrong. They say it’s a lifeline for the elderly, disabled and others on fixed incomes. An energy program official in Washington didn’t return an email seeking comment.