Senators hear of looming LIHEAP suspension

From Illinois News Network

With the hot summer months ahead some state Senators are losing their cool over the possible suspension of home energy assistance funds offered by the state.

Earlier this month, in the face of an unbalanced budget, Governor Bruce Rauner announced contingency plans that could result in the state freezing $400 million in various funds. Among the announced suspensions includes the state’s share of Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funds to the tune of more than $90 million.

In an exchange during a Senate Energy and Public Utilities Committee hearing in Chicago Thursday with Democratic Senator Terry Link, Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity Chief Operating Officer Mike Hoffman tried to explain that without proper spending authority in place from the General Assembly they need to suspend the funding.

“We are suspending the money at the direction of the Governor’s office in order to maintain flexibility …,” Hoffman said.

“Flexibility,” Link interrupted. “Flexibility over our heads is what you’re trying to do and over these citizens’ heads. Let’s quit the charade about this. It’s one simple subject. You’re trying to hold a political hammer over our heads and theses citizens.”

Link said the Governor was using the issue for political purposes. Even with the state funds suspended, more than $170 million from the federal program would still be available.

Senators heard during the committee that only ten percent of eligible households are covered by the state’s funds while a quarter are covered by federal funds.

Federal LIHEAP funds would still be available

AARP and other groups said the program is an important element in Illinois’ safety net and said they oppose the elimination of the program, but the Governor’s office says they only plan to suspend, not eliminate, the funds.

DCEO’s Hoffman says in light of an unbalanced budget to the tune of nearly $4 billion every decision, including suspending the state’s LIHEAP, is a difficult decision.

“If we don’t take these hard decisions now and go into the year with a manageable balanced budget then next spring I don’t think we’ll even have the option. I think we’ll have even impossible decisions to make if we’re facing that $4 billion gap.”

Differing opinions on legality of suspending state’s share of LIHEAP

Is the Governor’s pending suspension of the state’s share of LIHEAP funds legal? That depends on who you ask. Democratic State Senator Mattie Hunter said she doesn’t think the Governor has that legal authority because the money generated for LIHEAP comes from a surcharge on utility rates, not the General Revenue Fund.

“Looks like the Governor is going to need some other alternatives because I don’t see how he can touch these dollars at all, in my opinion, and I’m not an attorney.”

But James Monk with the Illinois Energy Association, which represents a large group of utility providers, shared his thoughts about the looming freeze saying it’s all about the appropriation.

“The money not only has to be there, it has to be appropriated. If there’s no budget in place as of July 1st, my assumption is there’s no appropriation, so I think that’s the complicating factor.”

Democratic Senator Donne Trotter agreed that there is no appropriation authority in place yet. Trotter said lawmakers passed a spending plan but have yet to pass a revenue plan.

Governor Rauner has indicated he won’t support new revenue without structural economic and political reforms.

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