With the public’s heightened concern about energy – especially its cost – and high expectation for government solutions, Gov. John Baldacci has proposed a modest short-term plan that sets the appropriate tone of using state resources wisely before moving to spend money the state isn’t likely to have.
The bulk of the nearly $13 million the governor proposes to devote to energy-related efforts would go toward helping cover the cost of heating, primarily through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP. More important than just putting more money into LIHEAP, the governor’s plan calls for increased spending on weatherization and boiler improvements, which will permanently reduce fuel consumption at these homes. Weatherizing homes can reduce fuel usage by 20 percent, and ensuring boilers are cleaned and tuned can cut fuel consumption by 20 percent. Funding this work will allow Maine’s LIHEAP funds to reach more people with larger benefits for years to come.
Rather than a special session, as Republican leaders in the State House have called for, the governor would earmark more than $4 million in Maine State Housing funds for LIHEAP. This is based on the current federal funding level of the program, which is much too low. The additional money would raise the minimum LIHEAP benefit for Mainers from $415 to $500. If Congress doubles LIHEAP funding, as Maine’s delegation proposes, this money could be used for other purposes, or to meet emergency heating needs.
The governor also proposes an emergency fund of more than $3 million that would be available beginning in January to provide additional funds to LIHEAP recipients and those just above the federal program’s qualification threshold who are in danger of running out of heating fuel. This would have to be approved by the Legislature, which could quickly approve more money in the early days of its next session if needed.
Lawmakers are already preparing for that session by creating a task force that will work with state agencies to see what resources are available to deal with energy concerns and what additional resources may be necessary. With this information, they will be prepared to act when they convene.
Under the governor’s plan, $3 million would be devoted to weatherization and heating system efficiency work. Another $1 million would be made available for energy conservation projects at Maine businesses, and $1 million of Department of Transportation funds would be devoted to increase car pooling and public transportation use.
The plan also has the Department of Administrative and Financial Services try an alternative work schedule. Many states and cities are experimenting with four-day workweeks to reduce energy use in state facilities. Although this may reduce energy consumption by state government, workers are likely to burn gasoline to go shopping and use electricity surfing the Web at home on their new day off, therefore merely transferring energy consumption, not actually reducing it.
Focusing on work that will stretch Maine’s limited resources is a good start to dealing with the problems caused by high energy prices.