LIHEAP is already a big help, but could be so much more

It’s hard to imagine living without heat in the winter in Pennsylvania. If your furnace has ever died or if you’ve lost power in January, you know what a challenge those few days or even a few hours can be like. For those struggling to make ends meet, this is a very real concern. Thankfully there is a long-running, successful program to help with this issue and it’s called the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or simply, LIHEAP.

First established in 1981, LIHEAP is a federally funded program that has helped millions of people pay their heating bills over the past four decades. While the money comes from the feds, the program is administered - and the funds distributed - by the individual states. PA, for the most part, has done a good job running this program. But we could be doing so much more. LIHEAP is long overdue for an upgrade, and I’ve introduced legislation to make two critical improvements.

The first, HB 2691, simply requires the PA Department of Human Services (DHS) to spend all of the money it receives from the feds every year. DHS holds tens of millions of dollars in reserve annually. This year alone it’s $100 million dollars. DHS says they keep the money back to ensure program availability in case the feds don’t send the money. But this has never happened. Ever.

This program has never NOT been funded. It’s one of the few policy areas in DC that has consistently been supported by both sides of the aisle. These are federal tax dollars coming back home to PA. It’s unconscionable not to spend all the money and not help as many people as possible. We should use every penny.

The second, HB 2694, would create a new LIHEAP program in Pennsylvania that is open year-round to also assist with summer cooling. As the last few years have shown us, cooling in the summer is as important as heat in the winter. People, especially older folks, need assistance to keep the AC on during summer months. It is a health hazard to cut people’s air off, especially as the summers get hotter and hotter. There are currently 11 other states with year-round LIHEAP programs. The program would be funded by the current federal appropriation along with a supplemental state appropriation to make up the difference.

It’s important to note that unpaid utility bills drive costs up for all ratepayers. So, by helping those in need meet their obligations, we all benefit in the form of lower rates and smaller increases over time.

These two measures would make a real difference in people’s lives. Each has broad bi-partisan support. People need help year-round. The funds are sitting there unused and would not raise your taxes one penny. The plain truth is that people are struggling, and the electric bill just went up. Something needs done to help families. This can help.