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 Governor Baldacci talks about Safe Handling, Maine’s first ethanol terminal. Photo by Ramona du Houx

January/February 2008

By Ramona du Houx

When President Bush vetoed bills, over the past year, which contained needed funds for the Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP), those involved in community action programs that help deliver the assistance became increasingly worried. Due to the freezing temperatures and the rise in oil prices, more people than ever have been applying for LIHEAP funds. One portion of money is distributed based on a formula that takes into account the low-income population, the climate, and energy costs. Another portion is set aside in an emergency fund to be distributed by the president at his discretion. Over 80 percent of homes in Maine are heated by oil. The average price of No. 2 home heating oil in December was $3.18 a gallon. The cost is 87 cents higher than last year. The need for heating assistance is greater than it’s ever been in the history of the federal program.

For many elected officials, part of doing the work of the people means that when their constituents need assistance because of circumstances beyond their control, officials are duty bound to offer a helping hand. The democratically elected leaders of this state announced that they would not let the people of Maine freeze, despite the cold freeze emanating from the White House.

“The federal government must meet its obligations and increase funding for heating assistance. I’m signing a letter along with the Coalition of New England Governors, to urge Congress to approve this additional heating contingency fund,” said Governor Baldacci.

In December Baldacci held talks with the congressional delegation in Washington, DC where they discussed LIHEAP, highway weight limits, energy speculation legislation, the energy bill currently before the House and Senate, and other long-term energy concerns. The delegation issued the following statement:

“The governor made clear that the situation in the state is very serious and that action is needed. We are committed to working closely with him. As a delegation, we have all been advocating for increased LIHEAP funding and will continue to do so. We have also been working to convince federal highway officials and other lawmakers to exempt all portions of the Interstate Highway System in Maine from federal weight limits, so that products can be moved to market more efficiently and safely.”

Last November Baldacci set up an energy task force. “We are not going to let anybody in the state of Maine freeze to death. My administration has developed an emergency action plan that will help to address high energy costs and avoid a crisis,” said the governor. “I have activated the state’s Energy Task Force, which is part of Maine’s Energy Emergency Plan.

This Energy Task Force will bring together the resources of State government in one place and will make sure that Maine is ready with shelters, warm centers, emergency transportation, and other basic services if energy supplies or high prices create a crisis. If the situation worsens and there is a shortage of energy resources, the governor will declare an “energy emergency” and take the steps necessary to protect the health, safety and welfare of Mainers.

The governor’s three-year-old Keep ME Warm program has been augmented by state agencies, and a call for more contributions from citizens, and businesses to the programs fund was put out.

“When we heard Governor Baldacci express concerns about the challenges Mainers could face this winter and about his commitment to help Mainers through a variety of measures, including the Keep ME Warm program, we knew we wanted to help,” said Darren Gillis of Irving Oil upon presenting the governor with a check that represented $100,000 worth of oil for the state’s Keep ME Warm Fuel Fund. The fund has raised more than $1 million dollars to provide emergency fuel assistance. L.L. Bean recently made a contribution of $250,000. Other donating organizations have been the Libra Foundation, the Fisher Foundation, Wright Express, Maine Bank and Trust, and TD Banknorth.

The Keep ME Warm Fuel Fund donations go to households with incomes just above the $13,000 cap that limits who can receive assistance from the LIHEAP. It’s a needed supplement to LIHEAP. Businesses, charities, and individuals can donate money, which is distributed by community agencies.

In order to help 5,000 families that are in real need, the state has set the fundraising goal for the Keep ME Warm Fund at $1.5 million.

It is hoped that more organizations, individuals, and businesses will come forward across the state with donations.

With Keep ME Warm, winterization kits are also provided to help Maine’s most vulnerable citizens insulate their homes. Volunteers across the state since the program’s inception have helped the elderly, disabled, and citizens in need install the items in these kits. Call 211 to find the closest community action program near you that could supply a kit.

Individuals can send money directly to one of the state’s ten Community Action Program agencies, and earmark it for specific needs.

The Public Utilities Commission has committed an additional $400,000 to provide weatherization and efficiency assistance for families and seniors served by fuel assistance programs. In cooperation with MaineHousing, this effort will expand the reach of the State’s Keep ME Warm weatherization efforts.

“For far too long the federal government has failed to deliver a national energy policy that reduces our country’s dependence on foreign oil. States have been left to lead the way on energy policy, and that’s what we have done in Maine. We have the opportunity in Maine to develop renewable, clean energy right here in our state, which is good for our environment, our pocketbooks, and our economy. My administration will continue to explore these opportunities,” said Governor Baldacci. “But we face short-term difficulties that need addressing now, and there are some practical things we can do. Joining with the Maine Oil Dealers Association, financial institutions, and other organizations, we will work cooperatively to mitigate high energy costs.”

The governor created Free Fare Friday which has proven effective with increased numbers of passengers across the state. For six weeks after Thanksgiving, anyone could ride the bus for free on Friday.

The governor directed the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to expedite the availability of gasoline treated with ethanol into the Maine market. In the past, ethanol has made gasoline more expensive. That’s not the case now, and the state will work with fuel suppliers to bring the lower-cost alternative to Maine, just as it is available in other New England states.

Since Baldacci took office, the State of Maine has been working to help reduce the state’s dependency on foreign oil. From the get-go, he set up the Governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security. He made Maine an example by becoming the first state government in the nation to buy 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, to use biodiesel to heat state offices, and one of the first states to adopt the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED building standards for new and renovated state buildings.

“Maine has tremendous potential when it comes to wind, solar, and tidal power, and to grow new industries to produce the equipment necessary to capitalize on that clean energy. We also have the natural resources necessary for these new biofuels. The University of Maine is working to perfect new technologies to create ethanol as part of the pulp-making process. The innovation holds the promise to revolutionize papermaking in Maine and open new markets for the Maine-made fuels,” said the governor. “But for all the potential and all the progress we’ve made, the opportunities of tomorrow won’t lower heating oil prices today.”

Just before the New Year, an omnibus $555 billion budget bill was signed by President Bush, which contained LIHEAP assistance. Maine’s congressional delegation is asking the president to release the emergency funding immediately.

“With Maine shivering in a pre-winter chill, I am especially pleased that the bill provides $800 million more than the president requested and $500 million more than the Senate approved for LIHEAP,” said Congressman Tom Allen.

Contributions can be made to the Keep ME Warm Fund by going to http://www.mainecommunityaction.org or by calling: 1-800-393-7175. Any TD Banknorth will also accept donations for the fund. Or you can send needed funds directly to: Keep ME Warm Fund. P.O. Box 200, East Wilton, ME 04234.

UPDATE — JANUARY 16, 2007

As of January 16, 2007 The federal Office of Management and Budget announced that it will release $450 million in emergency funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), including $8.8 million for Maine.

“This $8.8 million is welcome news for Mainers struggling to pay for skyrocketing heating fuel, especially families with children and seniors on fixed incomes. I will continue to work with the rest of the delegation and others in Congress to secure additional emergency LIHEAP funds to assure that Mainers are not forced to choose between keeping warm and buying food, medicine or other essentials,” said Congressman Tom Allen.

“This is very welcome news. I will continue to push congressional leaders to move a bill that provides more emergency funding for those in need. In the long-term, I have called on the President to include $5.1 billion, the fully authorized amount, for LIHEAP in his 2009 budget,” said Congressman Mike Michaud

Another $156 million, that could have been released, remains in the LIHEAP contingency fund.

“Maine is struggling under the grip of high oil prices and faces a difficult economy. This additional money will help a lot of Maine families,” Governor Baldacci said. “Unfortunately, it won’t solve our heating crisis by itself. We must continue to look out for our friends and neighbors, and work toward alternatives to costly foreign oil.”

Governor Baldacci thanked Maine’s Congressional Delegation for its efforts in Washington to have the money released by the federal government.

“The $8.8 million falls far short of what many families are going to need this winter to stay warm,” said MaineHousing Director Dale McCormick. “At today’s prices, the funding translates to an average of approximately 52 additional gallons for the 48,000 households that depend on LIHEAP to help heat their homes. The total benefit available this year won’t even buy one tank of oil.”

The base LIHEAP budget of $27.5 million currently is providing an average benefit of $579 for each eligible household. The supplemental $8.8 million will increase the average benefit to $750, McCormick said.