Fuel for the Needy

ONLY a few months ago people in places such as Chicago were doing all they could to try to stay cool in the blistering summer heat. Now it's the cold they're contending with. Some low-income families are forced to choose between buying groceries and heating their homes.

Many of these families rely on the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to help pay their utility bills. LIHEAP spent $1.3 billion on 6 million households last year. By next year, the program regrettably may be a thing of the past.

LIHEAP is one point of contention holding up congressional action on a $250 billion bill to fund the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education in 1996. The House version of the bill doesn't fund LIHEAP at all. The Senate has proposed $900 million - $100 million less than current spending set in the 1995 budget for 1996 programs.

LIHEAP began in the 1970s during the oil crisis, when rising prices caused hardship across Northern states. House Republicans say the program has outlived its usefulness. But because of low temperatures this year, heating oil has reached its highest price since early 1993, and natural gas has surged to its highest level since early 1994.

Energy experts are predicting greater demand for home heating oil and natural gas. Many of those needing help are the working poor and elderly.

The Clinton administration made the right decision last week when it distributed $578 million among the states for fuel aid. In addition to the $232 million already released by the Office of Management and Budget under two previous temporary spending measures, the additional money will put funding at 90 percent of the Senate budget proposal level. Families who need heat need it now; they can't wait for Congress and the president to come to an agreement on a budget.

MANY House Republicans say they favor a combination of block grants, state and local support, and involvement from utility companies in providing low-cost or free service for the needy.

We agree that utility companies in particular could do more than they are doing now to help, and it's inevitable that the program will have to be modified in the face of spending cuts.

One suggestion: People could elect to pay more than they owe on their utility bills. The extra money would be placed in a special fund for the needy, and contributors could take advantage of tax deductions for charitable giving. The government also could offer utilities a tax incentive for setting aside money on their own for the same purpose.

Heat is not an extra that families can do without. However it's organized, Congress and President Clinton should ensure that adequate assistance continue.

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