WASHINGTON – Soaring energy prices, a slow job market and rising poverty rates have states bracing for a projected 20 percent increase in the number of poor families seeking help paying their heating bills this winter.

Many of those families could end up with no help, however, because Congress hasn’t appropriated any additional cash for federally funded, state-operated Low Income Home Energy Assistance Programs. States will find it difficult to chip in because they’re suffering from stagnant tax revenues and rising Medicaid and education costs.

Maine’s maximum family grant will drop from $440 to $410. About 46,000 Maine families received assistance last year out of 53,000 who applied. But early fall temperatures in the 20s and 30s along with higher heating oil prices have already prompted more people to seek help.

Maine oil prices averaged $1.93 per gallon this week, according to a State Planning Office survey. A high of $2.04 was noted in western Maine.

The state average was up 9 cents from last week’s survey; No. 2 is up 23 cents per gallon since the heating season began earlier this month. This week last year, heating oil averaged $1.33 per gallon.

“We have had a major increase in people applying,” said Jo-Ann Choate, head of Maine’s energy assistance program. Choate expects more than 55,000 applications this year, but she said that without additional money, the program can serve only 46,000 families again this year. If the money runs out, Choate said the program will turn people away.

“You can’t give a benefit if you don’t have the funds,” she said.

Two weeks ago Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins issued a joint statement announcing that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has released $1.2 billion in regular funding, including $20.8 million for Maine, for LIHEAP.

At roughly $2 per gallon for oil, however, the $410 LIHEAP benefit won’t come close to covering the need of the state’s poorest families.

The State Planning Office estimates a typical Maine home will burn about 1,000 gallon for winter heating heating purposes during a typical season. That translates to about $2,000 at today’s prices.

Nevertheless, applications for energy assistance programs are expected to jump from about 5 million households last year to 6 million nationally this winter, said Mark Wolfe, director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association in Washington.

The federal program, known as LIHEAP, last year helped pay a part of winter heating bills for nearly 4.6 million families. Under current budget projections, it’ll get $2 billion this winter, up from $1.9 billion last winter. The actual amount will be set by Congress after the elections.

But the proposed increase is more than offset by rising energy prices, which will reduce the program’s purchasing power substantially. According to Department of Energy projections, the average cost of heating a home with natural gas will jump from $870 last winter to $1,003 this winter. Doing the same with heating oil will cost $1,223 this winter, up from $953 last year. Homeowners will pay an estimated average of $1,396 for a propane-heated home, up from $1,147 last winter.

“There’s just no way that families served by these programs can adjust to these increases. Low-income families just don’t have the resources. We’re extremely concerned,” Wolfe said.

In addition to helping with heating expenses, the program last year helped cover cooling costs for about 340,000 poor families in warm climates.

To avoid turning needy people away, state assistance programs are expected to lower the amounts they pay needy families or to make eligibility requirements stricter. Both changes, when coupled with higher energy prices, would tighten the squeeze on struggling families.

The problem is growing, said Jerry McKim, the energy assistance director in Iowa. Nearly 73,000 service disconnect notices were sent to the state’s residential utility customers in August, a 27 percent increase over last year.

“There’s an ongoing affordability crisis related to energy, and it’s not unique to Iowa,” McKim said. “It’s a national crisis, and from time to time, forces come together to make that crisis a disaster. And this could be one of those years.”

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Expecting more households to seek help, states have begun rationing their assistance.

In Rhode Island, LIHEAP maximum household grants for natural gas will drop to $600 this winter from $700 in 2003, said state program director Matt Guglielmetti. Heating oil grants will fall to $500 from $600 last year.

“Even those that we are assisting are getting less help because the buying power just isn’t there,” Guglielmetti said.

Colorado will cut its maximum family grant from about $320 to $220, said state program director Glenn Cooper.

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A group of governors representing mainly cold-weather states in the Midwest and Northeast have asked key members of the House and Senate subcommittees on labor, health and human services to increase LIHEAP funding to $3 billion this winter. Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry supports that figure. Elsewhere, governors are seeking $600 million in emergency LIHEAP funding to help states where extreme weather or economic problems could increase the need for help.

While many lawmakers from both parties support additional money for LIHEAP, that may prove difficult for the Department of Health and Human Services, which funds the program. The department faces big new expenses elsewhere in Social Security and at the National Institutes of Health.

Staff writer Doug Fletcher and Knight Ridder contributed to this report.


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