Maya Rao and Jim Spencer
In northwestern Minnesota, Corann Fladhammer has relied on $1,400 in federal assistance to heat her home as temperatures plunged in recent months. Without it, she said, it would be difficult for seniors like her to stay in their homes.
“It’s been colder than normal and that’s why I’ve used that much fuel,” Fladhammer, an 89-year-old Mentor resident, said Wednesday. “The older you get, the warmer you want your house.”
The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, is slated for elimination in the budget President Donald Trump proposed this week. Doing so would save the federal government $3.3 billion in 2019, according to the proposal — the largest single savings in the entire spending plan.
The prospect of cutting the program has alarmed lawmakers from cold-weather states. Before the release of Trump’s budget, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, asked Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to prioritize the program.
“The importance of LIHEAP cannot be understated — especially in places like Minnesota that experience bitterly cold temperatures and lengthy winters,” Klobuchar and Smith wrote in a letter to Mulvaney.
In Minnesota, about 126,000 households rely on federal heating assistance, and three-quarters of those include seniors, children under 6, or people with disabilities. The program will cost $102 million this year, a figure that has dropped from a peak of $162 million during the financial crisis but is back to roughly the same amount as a decade ago. Households qualify if they earn half or less of the state’s median income.
And like Fladhammer — who lives two hours south of the Canadian border — two-thirds of the recipients live in greater Minnesota.
“Losing LIHEAP would be just devastating to our rural areas,” said Catherine Johnson, executive director of the Inter-County Community Council, which is headquartered in Red Lake County and delivers heating assistance to 1,500 households in Fladhammer’s area. “It’s literally a life or death program — with how isolated we are, people could freeze to death.”
The Trump administration criticized LIHEAP as “a federal program that has been known to have sizable fraud and abuse, leading to program integrity concerns,” referring to a Government Accountability Office report from 2010. The report found that 9 percent of households in seven states it surveyed (none of them Minnesota) contained invalid identity information and that there were strong indications of fraud and improper benefits.
Trump’s budget also proposed elimination of the program last year, saying that it had a low impact and was unable to demonstrate strong outcomes, though lawmakers preserved its funding.
The administration’s budget document this year singled out Minnesota for praise for its “Cold Weather Rule” that keeps utility companies from shutting off power from Oct. 15 to April 15, regardless of a household’s ability to pay. The White House characterized the rule as a state measure that could allow the federal government to bow out. But Klobuchar said the Cold Weather Rule lets energy providers defer costs of paying for heat until warmer weather. Low-income households may still lack the means to pay the bill.
Catherine Fair, senior program officer for Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington counties, cautioned that the rule still doesn’t protect households that rely on fuel delivery for heat.
“We don’t have gas lines connected in all corners of the state of Minnesota … even in the city of St. Paul, we have homes that rely on fuel deliveries,” Fair said.
“It’s hard to even think about it,” said Pam Wild, energy assistance coordinator at Minnesota Valley Action Council, when asked about the prospect of eliminating the program. “We have a large number of people that we serve where this is the only benefit they receive in a year’s time. It just helps them make ends meet.”
While Klobuchar and Smith may be able to team with other cold-state legislators to make sure LIHEAP gets funded — Republican backers include Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine — Minnesota’s senators said its elimination in the president’s budget sent a message.
“The budget is a statement of values,” Klobuchar said.
Both challenged allegations of abuse in the program, and Smith said LIHEAP’s proposed elimination runs counter to the president’s claims to care for the common man and woman.
“The president talks a lot about how he wants to stand up for regular folks just trying to take care of their families and get ahead,” Smith told the Star Tribune. “Yet what he does here is he cuts money that helps people’s grandmothers and people with disabilities and children be able to keep their homes warm in the winter time.”
Johnson said she wasn’t sure how some of the elderly on fixed incomes would be able to remain in their homes over the winter months if they didn’t get heating assistance.
“There simply isn’t enough money to take care of all their needs,” Johnson said. “And when you look at the cost of putting them in a nursing home, vs. helping them with energy assistance, it’s quite a cost savings for the community and families.”