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N.E. governors call for boost in home heating aid funds

STEVE LEBLANC

Governors from across New England, warning that some families may have to choose between food or warmth this winter, have called for a sharp boost in federal home heating aid.

The governors, who met in Boston last Wednesday, said they are sending letters to President Bush, the presidential candidates, U.S. House and Senate leaders and their congressional delegations asking for an increase in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch said home heating oil prices have nearly doubled in the past year and are approaching $5 a gallon in some areas.

He said his state received about $25 million to help 33,000 low-income families last winter and would need $50 million for the same level of aid this winter.

“I think it’s potentially a crisis and I don’t use that word lightly,” he said. “We don’t want our families to be in the situation of having to make choices between being able to buy food for themselves or filling up the heating oil tank in their homes.”

Lynch’s worries were echoed by other governors, who said the Northeast, with its cold winters and reliance on oil heat, is particularly vulnerable to rising energy costs.

“New England is more tied to home heating oil as a region than the rest of the country,” said Maine Gov. John Baldacci. “We are more dependent on foreign sources of energy into our region.”

During the 2005-2006 winter, the region received about $313 million through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, but the governors said that only helped poorer families buy enough fuel to get less than halfway through the winter.

A fully-funded program, given the rising energy costs and expanded need, would cost nearly $1 billion, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said.

“It’s a serious concern,” he said.

Patrick said rising fuel costs will put pressure on middle-income families too, and urged residents to contact their utility companies for an energy audit to find ways to conserve fuel during the winter.

Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri agreed, saying government can only do so much, and that while some help may be on the way for the neediest, most residents will have to take actions on their own.

“The impact on that for middle income families is going to be dramatic,” he said. “The notion that we’re going to get money out of Washington to solve this problem is not likely to happen.”

The governors said the rising fuel costs show the increased need for alternative energy sources, including nuclear.

Baldacci said nuclear power has to be “part of the solution.”

Patrick agreed.

“It’s going to have to be a part of the solution, and in order for it to be a part of the solution, the disposal issues are going to be have to be solved and they haven’t been,” he said.

The National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, which represents state-run low-income energy assistance programs, said the national average cost to heat a home with oil this winter will be $2,593, up from $1,962 last winter.

U.S. Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass. and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, have co-sponsored a bill that would mandate that heating oil from the Northeast Home Heating Oil Reserve should be released if home heating oil tops $4 per gallon this winter.

(Associated Press)