All this political fiddling in Washington could be tolerable, if Maine and other northern states were actually burning. Then, all those eligible for low-income heating assistance might actually stay warm.

Except “frozen” is the better word. It describes the low-income and elderly Mainers shivering inside their cold homes, and in fear of further plummeting mercury, and how Congress – in its well-heated, taxpayer-funded halls – isn’t moving toward freeing up additional funds for heating subsidies.

On Tuesday, senators from Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Alaska and Oregon asked federal budget-makers to “reevaluate their spending priorities” for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance program, or LIHEAP, which (like so many things) hasn’t kept pace with the spiraling cost of oil.

LIHEAP’s $1.8 billion appropriation was based on February’s per-barrel oil price: $58. The senators noted the price is now about $88; it rose to $94.30 on Wednesday. Funding today’s program on yesterday’s numbers is untenable.

Only Washington can provide respite from winter’s cold, for thousands of families in Maine and across the nation. MaineHousing, the agency tasked with administering LIHEAP, reports there are about 50,000 households that will receive benefits, on a total current budget of $27 million.

That’s an average benefit of $540 per household, which isn’t enough for one tankful of heating oil. For the extended duration of Maine’s winter, this will not be enough. For those Mainers who depend on LIHEAP for heating their homes, there are long, cold and desperate times ahead.

The federal government must act. In the short-term, it means appropriating millions more for LIHEAP benefits. In the long-term, it means furthering alternative energy developments and regulating the troublesome petroleum commodity market, which oil dealers blame for price inflation.

In Maine, the long-term also means diversifying the availability of other home heating sources, to reduce our state’s unique over-reliance on heating oil. A Bethel lawmaker, Rep. Tim Carter, has legislation coming seeking rebates for installing geothermal heating systems, for example.

It’s a start. With more than 80 percent of our aging housing stock utilizing oil for heating, Maine is too vulnerable to shifts in the petroleum market.

Another critical need is preventative weatherization of older homes, especially in rural areas. Irv Faunce, of Western Maine Community Action, tells of arriving in Rangeley with a fraction of the state-distributed weatherization kits needed just for the crowd of people that appeared to meet him.

Next year, distributing to homeowners the tools of energy efficiency cannot fall so short.

LIHEAP, as a program, is in trouble, as would any subsidy that provides less to its recipients, while costing more to taxpayers. First things first, however. Maine’s congressional delegation must continue to clamor for LIHEAP funds, to keep people warm now. It’s too late for other solutions, or to simply wait for spring.

Winter is here.

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