Lawmakers reach heating aid compromise

Both legislative houses on Wednesday approved taking $10 million from the budget surplus to bolster home heating aid for the poor and elderly.

Gov. John Lynch pledged to sign Senate Bill 228, which was spurred by rising energy costs in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“Today, we are sending a clear message that we are not going to leave our citizens out in the cold,” Lynch said. “We are going to give them the help they need to stay warm this winter”

Deputy Speaker Michael O’Neil, R-Hampton, led support for the legislation in the House after it passed the Senate by unanimous voice vote in a brief floor session. The House roll call was 332-4.

O’Neil told colleagues he has a 79-year-old Hampton constituent worried about her fuel bill in a cold winter. She had kept her home at 58 degrees last year when prices were 30 percent lower.

“I don’t want to come down to her place in the middle of the winter and find her dead,” O’Neil said. “She’s a proud lady. She doesn’t want to ask for help. But it’s hard to get by when you’re living on Social Security.”

The fuel aid fund comes from a special tax on heating bills that collects $13.5 million per year. Ratepayers fund the efficiency program too, which helps homeowners insulate their properties and conserve energy.

The bill also transfers roughly $3 million from the Energy Efficiency Fund to help give an extra 10,000 customers between $55 and $60 a month toward their heating costs from January to June. Public Service of New Hampshire has agreed to front the $3 million, and the state will pay the utility back $1 million per year.

Last month the Public Utilities Commission was close to hiking the fee collected from ratepayers to help additional low-income people this winter. The Senate asked for time to solve the problem a better way, and the commission agreed.

Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, opposed SB 228 after O’Neil was unable to say if fuel assistance would be retroactive to the start of cold weather or just to Jan. 1.

“From what I hear, Jan. 1 is the earliest it starts,” Vaillancourt said. “Can we get it to start sooner?”

O’Neil wasn’t sure and nobody else knew.

As late as this week legislative leaders were divided over using some of the Energy Efficiency Fund to supplement heating assistance. Some lawmakers wanted all the fuel help to come from the general fund.

O’Neil said Congress is close to increasing the state’s share of federal fuel assistance by $7 million. – CHRIS DORNIN/GOLDEN DOME NEWS SERVICE

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