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Panel: State Fuel-Assist: Bill May Triple to $50M

July 3, 2008

By Matt Murphy, The Sun, Lowell, Mass.

Jul. 3–BOSTON — The pain at the pump might be nothing compared to what families will have to pay this winter for oil to heat their homes.

Even as the mercury rises outside, some politicians on Beacon Hill are starting to think about how much it will cost to make sure low-income residents don’t freeze in their homes this winter when they are unable to pay the high cost of home-heating oil.

A new report from the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight suggests the state should be prepared to shell out more than triple what it spent this year on fuel assistance, suggesting $50 million might be needed to keep poorer families warm.

The report, the result of a hearing held by state Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, earlier this month on rising gas prices, says $50 million might be needed just to meet the same level of assistance provided by the state last winter.

Home heating oil prices have increased 80 percent in one year, according to the report, while natural gas prices have almost doubled and electricity prices are up 60 percent.

Massachusetts administered $139 million in state and federal fuel assistance last winter to about 140,000 poor families, with only $15 million of that purse coming from state accounts.

State Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, chairman of ways and means and the Senate’s chief budget writer, said finding $50 million in the current economy with unknown price tags also looming for health care and other fixed expenses could be

difficult.

“That’s a large number,” said Panagiotakos, a Lowell Democrat. “We can’t have people go through the winter without heat, so we have to step up. If the feds come through with more money, we could stay closer to $15 million or $20 million. Fifty million dollars would be difficult, but we’d have to do it.”

The state budget, poised to pass the Legislature today, does not contain any provisions for fuel assistance. The state has always preferred to address the issue with a supplemental budget later in the year when it becomes clearer how much help is needed.

The federal government, under President Bush, has backed off its fuel- assistance program in recent years, coming through with as little as $82 million from a high of $125 million.

Recent increases, however, have left Panagiotakos hopeful that a renewed federal commitment to fuel assistance will help bail out the state.

Last year, the $15 million from the state went towards helping families pay overdue bills, covering back expenses that forced oil companies to threaten to turn the heat off.

The money, however, did little to help families who might have to choose between heat and other necessities like food this winter, with heating oil hovering around $4.50 a gallon, a full dollar more than last winter.

“It’s a growing problem,” Panagiotakos said. “Over the past couple of years, it’s been getting worse and worse. For $100, they’re getting half of what they would have gotten. If there’s no one else to help, we’re going to have to.”

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Sun, Lowell, Mass.

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