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Mass. Lawmakers Asked to Provide Home Heating Assistance in Shadow of Federal Cuts

Advocates for low-income families in Massachusetts are calling on the state and federal governments to increase funding for fuel assistance programs in the shadow of sequestration.

In a few short days, members of Congress must vote to avoid the series of across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, but if not; many programs that benefit the neediest families will have their budgets slashed mid-year.

One of those programs is the Low Income Heating Assistance Program – or LIHEAP – which in Massachusetts, could see a cut by $6.7 million. So some groups, including Action for Boston Community Development, are asking state legislators for help.

John Drew is President and CEO of ABCD spoke about the looming threat of the sequester.

ABCD is asking the legislature provide supplemental funding to offer families that have exhausted their federal assistance. Last year, state legislators voted to provide $21M. John Drew is hoping for a similar amount this year.

Tammy Biagini, LIHEAP Director at the Berkshire Community Action Council says that low-income families in the Western-most communities of the state are also in dire straits. Biagini said that the Citizen Energy Oil Heat Program, which provides needy families with 100-gallons of free heating oil after they’ve used up federal assistance, was quickly exhausted.

State Senator Benjamin Downing of Pittsfield said that he believes that state lawmakers can step in to release supplemental funding to those who cannot heat their homes, but will likely wait until the picture in Washington becomes more clear.

Downing added that he hopes the state can match the $21M in supplemental funding approved last year, but some of the state’s current fiscal dilemmas, including costs incurred from a scandal involving testing at a state drug lab, may present some challenges.

Downing said that the legislature may have to take steps in future budgets to fill the gap in home heating assistance in the presence of future cuts to the federal LIHEAP program.

In Congress, Massachusetts Representatives Ed Markey and Jim McGovern, as well as Vermont Congressman Peter Welch recently announced that they are pushing fellow lawmakers to exempt LIHEAP from the sequester. LIHEAP may take $177 million in benefit cuts. The program has already been cut $1.6 billion nationally since 2010.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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