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The Patriot Ledger - Bush Cuts Leave North Out in the Cold

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The Patriot Ledger - Bush Cuts Leave North Out in the Cold

By John Kerry

For the people who work hard and play by the rules, winter in New England should be a time to shovel some snow, and then get out of the cold and warm up on the couch watching another Patriots' Super Bowl run and the Celtics' new ‘‘Big 3'' ring in a basketball resurgence in the Hub.

But for many senior citizens and working families in New England, there won't be any time to dream about Super Bowl parades or the raising of championship banners. Instead, too many Massachusetts families will be agonizing over how to pay their skyrocketing home heating costs.

Recent reports say that New England consumers will pay up to 22 percent more to heat their homes this winter. But rather than help them fight the cold, President Bush seems determined to leave working class families in the cold. Instead of increasing funding to keep up with prices, he's asked Congress to slash funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) by $379 million.

Parents should never have to choose between feeding their children and heating their home; no senior citizen should be forced to decide whether to buy medicine or heating oil. But those are exactly the untenable choices that tens of thousands of our neighbors in Massachusetts will face this winter.

The President's dangerous disregard for New England's working families and senior citizens comes at the worst possible time. Home heating fuel prices are up 10 percent from last winter, but New England households will be especially hard hit because we depend more heavily on heating oil, which has gone up in price faster than other heating sources.

Even more alarming, these estimates are based on the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's projection that this winter will be just 4 percent colder than last year. Those of us who remember roses blooming in Boston Common last January fear a far worse outcome. And while a 4 percent colder winter may not sound like a problem, if you spent last winter wrapped in blankets and sleeping by the open door of your oven, if you barely scraped by, it could be catastrophic.

When energy costs rose in 1981, Congress created LIHEAP to help low income families and seniors make ends meet. Now that prices are rising again, it's up to Washington to help families to bridge the growing gap between stagnant incomes and skyrocketing heating costs. Families aren't making any more money, so we must grow the program to meet the growing need.

Investing in these programs right now will help families break even on their heating costs, leaving whatever extra funds they scrape up better spent dealing with rising gas prices and healthcare premiums

The president recently released funds remaining from last winter, but we continue to underfund LIHEAP by $3.1 billion. That's unconscionable. Instead of forcing states to beg for crumbs in the middle of the winter, we ought to invest the full $5.1 billion required to fully fund LIHEAP.

But even that isn't enough; we should be creating incentives for families to weatherize their homes. This creates new jobs and saves energy, and a small investment up front can save a family tens or even hundreds of dollars every winter.

Unfortunately, President Bush doesn't see it that way. Last year, he requested an $80 million cut to the Weatherization Assistance Program. This year, he requested a $60 million cut. We cannot let this administration block the most efficient way to save families money and fuel this winter.

There are no excuses for inaction. Just as the Army Corps of Engineers warned about the levees in New Orleans before Katrina struck, now the Energy Information Administration is warning us about hikes in heating prices and drops in temperature. We can't allow these warnings to go unheeded - if Washington invests now in the State Energy Program, the Weatherization Assistance Program and LIHEAP, we can still avert a financial crisis for thousands of families in case of an unexpectedly cold winter.

When it comes to helping families heat their homes, this administration has been a day late and tens of millions of dollars short.

Finally, providing LIHEAP and Weatherization Assistance the funding that's desperately needed is an important, reasonable step toward making winter heating affordable for the families who need it most - and it is a chance to prevent disaster before it strikes in another tough New England winter.


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