State representatives from the Berkshires are unhappy about how Republican Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is choosing to spend money intended to assist the vulnerable with paying for heat.
The cross-state kerfuffle is over the impact of the Trump administration’s ongoing attempts to remove the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program from the federal budget. LIHEAP is a federal program that issues over $3.5 billion in aid to around 6 million American households who live at 150 percent of the poverty level and struggle to afford heating. According to the state, federal funding for LIHEAP in Massachusetts dropped from $147 million to $136 million this fiscal year.
“So, it began when the president zeroed out the low income heating assistance line item from the federal budget and so in Massachusetts we went ahead with the plan to do $30 million to try and restore that, to try and restore what the federal government is cutting," explained Democratic state Representative Paul Mark of the 2nd Berkshire District. Earlier in April, the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development said only $11 million would be allocated to agencies around the state in fiscal year 2019. The remaining $19 million was to be spent in fiscal year 2020.
“$30 million was the number," continued Mark. "It was approved by the House, it was approved by the Senate. I believe they were both approved unanimously, and it was sent to the governor and it was signed by the governor. And the expectations were that this money would start to flow out to the people in need, the people who just went through I think a pretty cold winter and are looking for funding. And for whatever reason, the governor’s administration has decided to only let out $11 million of that and it is not scheduled currently to flow through to the most needy people, so a lot of us on the legislature – including the speaker, the House chair of ways and means, and our local Berkshire and Pioneer Valley delegations are pretty upset.”
“I don’t have idea what’s in Governor Baker’s head," said State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier – also a Democrat. She represents the 3rd Berkshire District out of her office in downtown Pittsfield.
“I just think what needs to get in his head is that the legislature appropriated this money, the money is there, it is the will of the legislature, the representatives of the people, to help the most vulnerable people in the commonwealth and he needs to give that money in this fiscal year to that program,” she told WAMC.
Farley-Bouvier said she was surprised by the Baker administration’s decision.
“It’s exactly the kind of government program that really everyone agrees on because there’s no middle man," said Farley-Bouvier. "It’s not like someone’s making money on this program. It helps the vulnerable people to get heating assistance.”
Mark echoed her confusion, noting that the current fiscal period to allocate the money ends on June 30th.
“We’re so late in the fiscal year – this was a supplemental budget for the current fiscal year that will end in July – to me it would have made the most sense to get the money out there where the winter has just concluded and make sure that it’s being spent properly and helping the people that rely on these things, that rely on this type of funding and having the money they need for low income heating," said the state rep. "It means for some seniors, maybe, that are thinking about, ‘can I afford this on my own or not?’ Some of them will make the choice to just go without heat, and that’s never a good thing.”
In a statement, the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development says it has released more funding for fuel assistance — from $11 million to $19 million.
"The Baker-Polito Administration is committed to providing home heating assistance for families and seniors in need and will support the use of $19 million in state funds in FY19 to fund a one-time increase in benefits this year, providing thousands of Massachusetts households with additional assistance for this year's heating costs and a head start for those who use oil on next year’s winter heating season,” said the DHCD.
The statement updates one given to WAMC last week that said that the $11 million plan offered funding to 66,000 households. It went on to say that “given the recent reductions of federal funding, the administration believes it is critical to ensure an appropriate amount of funding, which is allocated over two years, is available for Commonwealth families next year, particularly to safeguard against factors like a harsh winter or higher fuel prices.”
The DHCD says the funds will go to around 157,000 households in the state, and that the remaining $11 million “will be available in FY20 as a partial offset to another anticipated reduction in federal fuel assistance funding next year."