WASHINGTON — With the White House under increasing pressure from a Senate coalition, an official said Friday that the Clinton administration is considering releasing up to $215 million in emergency heating assistance funds to help ease the burden from this month’s ice storms.
Fifty-three senators, including Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, signed a letter to President Clinton that urges him to release the emergency heating funds, which he can do at his discretion.
“The devastating ice storm that hit the Northeast and continued freezing temperatures have endangered the lives of many Americans on low or fixed incomes,” said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., co-chairman of the Northeast-Midwest Senate Coalition, which rounded up the 53 signatures supporting the emergency funding.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the heating program, said the White House was well aware of the weather crisis in Maine and other Northeast states and was weighing a decision to release the funds.
“We are considering it, yes,” said Michael Kharfen, HHS spokesman. “We’ve certainly been monitoring what’s been going on, in terms of the weather.”
Kharfen, however, could not say when a decision would be made.
For fiscal year 1998, which ends Sept. 30, Congress provided Clinton with $300 million in emergency funds, on top of the regular $1 billion budget for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
Unlike years past, when Northeastern states needed extra funds to help pay for additional heating fuel, states now need the money to cover costs such as repairing downed electric lines — just so families can turn on their furnaces.
In Maine, the state Housing Authority had originally budgeted $127,000 for emergency needs like electric repair, according to Peter Wintle, spokesman for the authority.
“Those funds are gone,” Wintle said.
The remaining $12.5 million the authority received for LIHEAP has already been targeted to help pay heating costs for about 40,000 households in Maine.
Without the emergency LIHEAP funds to pay for repairs, Wintle said, “We don’t have anything to fall back on. … At this point, we’re just waiting and hoping the money will get freed up.”