Rendell announces LIHEAP expansion; defends reduced eligibility levels

Governor Rendell is expanding Pennsylvania’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

The governor says spending efficiencies give him the flexibility to extend the LIHEAP application season by two weeks, into early April. He’s also increasing cash grants by a hundred dollars, upping the expected average grant to $326.

A portion of that savings came from the Department of Public Welfare’s decision to push back the start of LIHEAP’s crisis grant program to early January. That drew a lot of criticism, but Deputy DPW Secretary Linda Blanchette says more than 11,000 people still got LIHEAP crisis grants over the past two months. “During that period of time, between November 2nd and January 4th, if someone were completely without heat – if their utilities were terminated or they were completely without fuel – they could apply for a crisis exception payment,” she said. “So we made sure that anybody who was at real risk had access to LIHEAP crisis benefits during that period.”

Cash grants have been available since early November.

Several officials and advocates, including Democratic Congressman and Senate candidate Joe Sestak, have also criticized the Rendell Administration for lowering LIHEAP’s eligibility requirements. Last winter, a family of four making up to $44,443 could apply for funding. This season, that number shrank to $33,075.

Blanchette explained the change as a return to normal levels, rather than a reduction. “Last year, because we had additional money, and because we were watching energy prices creep ever-higher – we were fearful that they would hit five dollars or more during the LIHEAP season – we did increase the income guidelines for last year only,” she said. “This year, because we have less money and because fuel prices, specifically oil prices, have leveled off and gone back to historical levels, we then brought our income guidelines to historical levels, as well.”

Rendell added to that, “Congressman Sestak can draw his attention to the fact we got 53 million dollars less from the federal government. And I understand he’s a federal officeholder.”

Sestak says he’s “encouraged” by the extension, but maintains Rendell has the money to extend the cap to last year’s levels. He says the reductions means, “many families who lost much of their savings during this economic recession will be ineligible for assistance.”

It’s important to note Sestak and Rendell are using different figures to state their case. According to the Department of Public Welfare, Pennsylvania received $330 million in LIHEAP funding last year. Sestak says that figure was $275 million. I’m looking into an explanation for that discrepancy, and will hopefully post it later today.

About pubradiopolitics
Scott covers state government and politics for Pennsylvania's public radio stations, including WITF in Harrisburg, WHYY in Philadelphia and WDUQ in Pittsburgh.

One Response to Rendell announces LIHEAP expansion; defends reduced eligibility levels

  1. william says:

    how dare you raise the income levels for liheap with out telling us about it. i only heard about it when i got turned dowm. thank s you lame duck

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