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Keeping the Heat On: Fuel Assistance is Not Only Worth Fighting for, It’s Worth Voting For

The Boston Globe Joseph P. Kennedy II As we get closer to Election Day, it has become clear that many voters are worried about the level of government overspending since the financial crisis hit. After seeing massive stimulus spending and banks bailed out, all using taxpayer money, ordinary people are frustrated because their life experience tells them that a family or a nation that constantly overspends is sowing the seeds of a future bankruptcy. The anger is understandable. But rather than overreacting, voters should look to see how the newly installed Conservative Party in the United Kingdom has proposed to deal with its own fiscal crisis. While laying out deep cuts, the Conservatives and their coalition partners have sought to preserve a social safety net by suggesting that the wealthy will have to shoulder a greater share of the burden of putting the nation on sound footing than people of moderate income or the poor. Elected officials and candidates, especially Republicans and Tea Party hopefuls, should learn from their British counterparts. No one questions that tough spending and revenue choices have to be made to bring the US budget under control. But we have to make sure they’re the right choices. In the case of the federal fuel assistance program, which so many in our state and country have come to rely on to make it through a cold winter night, wrong choices have already been made that will have a big impact on families yet to emerge from the shadows of recession. Back in January, President Obama proposed a 36 percent cut to the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, from a fully funded $5.1 billion level down to $3.3 billion. The White House also proposed a “trigger” that in dire economic and weather circumstances could provide an additional $2 billion in funding. That trigger, however, has never been taken up by Congress. In the meantime, the House passed a spending bill that level-funded fuel assistance at $5.1 billion while the Senate approved $3.3 billion. The program is currently being funded at the lower level, with little hope of getting any additional monies if the Republicans make significant gains in Tuesday’s election. Massachusetts last year received $197 million in federal fuel assistance, enough to help over 200,000 households stay a little warmer. Of the $3.3 billion currently in the total program budget, only $2.7 billion is being released to the states, with the remaining $600 million being held back for emergency assistance. The lower appropriation from Washington this year means that the Bay state will receive $100 million for the entire winter -- a cut of nearly 50 percent. In Boston, the maximum household benefit last year was $1,200, enough for less than two tankfuls [sic] of heating oil. This year, families can count on less than half of that -- no more than $515, or about two-thirds of a single tank. The benefit will be further eroded if heating oil prices continue to rise above their current level of about $3 a gallon. With interest rates low on fixed-income assets like treasury bills, market analysts expect continued huge movements of money into riskier investments in commodities like oil and gold, putting further upward price pressure on all petroleum products. No wonder applicants are already overwhelming fuel assistance agencies. Applications reached a record level of 7.7 million last year and are expected to hit 8.8 million this coming winter for a program that reaches only about one-fourth of all eligible households. This is no time to cut the program. Keeping fuel assistance fully funded is not only worth fighting for, it’s worth voting for. Candidates can throw around slogans about cutting the fat and reining in spending all they want. They can afford to heat their homes. Their rhetoric bumps up against the reality of what happens to the poor when politicians cut essential programs like fuel assistance. I supported a Balanced Budget Amendment when I served in Congress and proposed budgets that fully funded fuel assistance. We can do it, but not if we elect short-sighted candidates who want to balance the budget without weighing all the consequences. The choices on Tuesday are not just political -- they’re moral. If we vote our values, we will support candidates who will preserve a heating lifeline to senior citizens and working families.

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