As Pennsylvania braces for whatever the federal budget may bring, the state Department of Human Services is already proposing cuts to its popular Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
The federal block-grant program helps the poor pay for heat during the winter. The funding comes from the federal government and is administered at the state level. President Trump's proposed 2018 budget put LIHEAP on the chopping block for the coming winter.
"As a result of the president's proposal and the uncertainty that exists around the federal budget at this time, DHS is estimating that Pennsylvania will receive $153.7 million for the 2018 federal block grant. That represents a 25 percent reduction in the fiscal 2017 allocation," Brian Whorl, the director of the division of federal programs for DHS, said at a public hearing Wednesday in Philadelphia. "This is a precautionary measure."
If the federal government comes through with funding consistent with previous years, Whorl said, DHS would scale back the proposed cuts, which include shortening the length of time the program is available in the winter and lowering the minimum and maximum amounts residents can receive.
For 2017, Pennsylvania received $209 million from the federal government for LIHEAP.
DHS proposes lowering the LIHEAP cash grant minimum to families with an income limit of 150 percent of the federal poverty level to $100 (from the previous minimum of $200) and lowering the LIHEAP crisis grant maximum to $400 (from the previous $500 cap).
At Wednesday's hearing, one of three public hearings scheduled across the state this month, several advocates and users of LIHEAP spoke out against the cuts.
"The potential decrease in federal funding would never justify cutting people off from LIHEAP in November," said Maripat Pileggi, staff attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. "The potential for harm is just too great."
Pileggi was referring to an initial proposal by DHS to delay the opening of LIHEAP benefits to Nov. 27 instead of the usual start date of Nov. 1. The delayed start date drew criticism at Wednesday's hearing.
At the start of the hearing, Whorl said that the department recently received $23 million from the federal government that the department will be able to roll over into its 2018 budget. That money, Whorl said, should allow DHS to open LIHEAP by Nov. 1.
However, DHS expects the 2018 LIHEAP season to be cut short by more than a week. DHS is proposing ending the program by March 23 instead of the usual April 1 date. April 1 is also the end of the moratorium for utility companies to shut off heat in people's homes.
"Utility companies … ramp up those termination activities the month before the moratorium ends and then follow through with those termination notices on April 1," Pileggi said. "Giving folks, these families struggling to make ends meet, those few extra business days to ensure that those termination notices can be canceled and they can keep service on until the spring is very important, and we urge DHS to keep the LIHEAP season open until at least April 1."
A woman who testified during the two-hour hearing said she lost her full-time job when she became her sick mother's primary caregiver. When she couldn't keep up with her bills, she said, LIHEAP provided her some relief.
"Programs like LIHEAP help those who are the working poor," she said. "If it were not for programs like LIHEAP … I would probably still be sitting in a house with no electricity."