Writing and Reporting by Jake Brown
Kansas City, Missouri, lies in the center of the heartland. With icy winters and scorching summers, energy assistance advocates work year round to assist families in need. These advocates include partners like the Mid-America Assistance Coalition, whose president, John Rich, sat down with LIHEAP.org for a discussion about the importance of supporting LIHEAP amid the backdrop of the White House’s FY2018 budget proposal to eliminate the program’s funding.
Thank you for speaking with us. Please tell us about your own organization and your involvement with LIHEAP.
I’m with the Mid America Assistance Coalition in Kansas City, and we’re an independent, non-profit agency, we provide a software system to other non-profit agencies to track client services, that include emergency assistance services (including utility assistance) and homeless services, so we’re HMIS (Homeless Management Information System). We have tracking and reporting capabilities for LIHEAP funds, and have a client in Baton Rouge for instance who uses our software to track their LIHEAP services on our software.
You were one of many long-time energy assistance professionals from around the country who took to Capitol Hill this past March. What reaction did you receive from Missouri’s Senators and Congressional Reps to the White House’s proposal to eliminate LIHEAP funding?
I was pleasantly surprised this year actually because we were concerned about the political shift, but the Democrats in general have been very supportive of LIHEAP, some of the Republicans not necessarily so, although the folks we saw in Missouri – both Senators and the Legislators we saw – really understand the importance of LIHEAP and they’re very supportive of it. For example, Senator Roy Blunt has always been supportive of LIHEAP, and he’s a Republican, and Claire McCaskill has always been supportive, and one of our staunchest supporters is Rep. Emanuel Cleaver out of Kansas City. He’s always been a supporter of increasing LIHEAP funding. Its not an easy nut to crack to get the right balance of spending, but LIHEAP is one of the programs I think that will continue to have the support of Congress, which is important.
My involvement in LIHEAP Action Day is a result of my participation on the board of the National Energy and Utility Affordability Coalition, and the standard answers we got about what the budget’s going to look like was “We have no idea, but we support at least level funding of LIHEAP.” So I was pleasantly surprised from that, because my concern – looking at Federal funding for all the various non-profits across the country – is that the Administration that’s newly-elected wants to increase spending in alot of areas, particularly in Defense, but at the expense of some of the safety net programs that are out there, and frankly, the safety net is so full of holes that we’ve got alot of people that are in dire straits out there. If you were cut any more from the safety net, I hate to think what’s going to happen to those folks.
By contrast, how would you rate the program’s political support on the state level?
Actually, we’ve had intermittent state support here. The state of course gets the LIHEAP dollars, and here in Missouri, its about $60 million, and that’s been pretty much level for the last two years. Before 2009, the state had what they called Utilicare, which was a state fund that supplemented the Federal dollars, then when the bubble popped, those dollars went away. Last year, they funded some new Utilicare dollars, but I don’t know what they’re going to do this year because we have a brand new Republican Governor, so its kind of up in the air what’s going to happen from the state funding standpoint. So the safety net funding is something that’s a big question mark. What they’re floating around Washington D.C. is putting everything into a block grant, and we’re not real thrilled about having everything in a block grant because that means the state would decide how much went here, there, or wherever, and not all states have the same priorities, and sometimes I think block grant dollars find their way into the general fund.
Utility providers have a lot to lose with the White House’s proposed FY2018 budget proposal that eliminates LIHEAP funding. Do you feel utility providers have been a strong ally so far in the fight to protect the program and maintain its current funding levels?
The utilities feel that LIHEAP is essential because it serves a great number of low income families that otherwise would not be able to pay their utility bills, and it helps the folks that have fixed incomes, that are struggling to make ends meet. Alot of the users are one-time users, and LIHEAP covers about 20% of the need for utility assistance, and we manage a number of private utility funds that are funded through the utility companies, so LIHEAP isn’t the only funding source for utility assistance. Most utilities additionally have some kind of assistance fund that they provide to their low-and-fixed income clients, and that’s one of the things that my agency does is manage some of those utility assistance funds. We’re in about 10 states with managed utility assistance funds, but by far, the largest dollar aid is the LIHEAP funding. At $3.9 billion, if we lost that, alot of people would be in a world of hurt.
Finally, what do you feel makes the greatest argument for LIHEAP’s continued funding at current levels in spite of the threat of a reduction or outright elimination in the coming Washington budget battles?
LIHEAP is really a win-win situation for folks who are in need of assistance, and for the utility companies because they don’t have a lot of bad debt, so it decreases their costs, helps folks who really need the help, and its one of the better-run Federal programs that’s out there. I don’t know about some of the other safety net programs, but LIHEAP will weather the budget storm.