President Scrooge: ‘Let them shiver’

PARIS, Maine — It is freezing cold and the countryside here in the “Down East” state is blanketed in snow. As home heating prices double or triple, low- and middle-income families in this low-wage state are struggling to stay warm.

But President Bush, warmly ensconced in the White House, is threatening yet another veto of an omnibus domestic spending bill that includes an increase in home heating aid.

He already vetoed an earlier version in November, claiming that the $250 million increase in heating assistance and other human needs is “wasteful.” Yet he is demanding that Congress approve nearly half a trillion in Pentagon spending plus another $70 billion for the war in Iraq. Lisa Magee, associate director of the Housing and Fuel Assistance Program for Androscoggin and Oxford counties in central Maine, told the World that 8,500 families in the two counties apply each winter for the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Last winter, 1,500 of the applicants here were rejected, so only 6,000 families in the two counties received the one-time $550 fuel voucher. It is delivered directly to fuel companies.

“This program is very much needed, especially for the elderly living on fixed incomes,” she said in a phone interview. “It is not adequately funded, not with oil prices where they are at. The $550 doesn’t even cover the cost of one tank of oil at $3.19 a gallon.”

“We need more benefit funding,” she said. “The oil prices are just incredible.” Last winter, the average cost of heating a house in Maine was $1,800. This year it is expected to nearly double to $3,000 per home.

Soaring prices for both home heating oil and automobile gasoline have meant near-record profits for Exxon Mobil, BP, Chevron and other oil giants. While moaning that their earnings are lower this year, in fact they are reaping enormous windfall profits. Exxon Mobil is expected to report about $36 billion in profits this year.

Magee said she speaks with LIHEAP recipients and hears their stories of being forced to choose between paying to heat their homes or buying food or medication. The program has been in touch with Sen. Olympia Snowe’s office and hopes Snowe, a Republican, will push for more money for LIHEAP, Magee said.

Magee’s office is also handling applications to the Boston-based Citizens Energy Oil Heat Program for fuel assistance provided by CITGO, the Venezuelan national oil company. It provides 100 gallons of free fuel oil for low-income families each winter. CITGO began accepting applications Dec. 3 with a deadline of next Feb. 29. (Applications can be submitted toll-free by phone at 877-563-4645 or online at The Venezuelan Information Ministry reports that CITGO’s program is providing $147 million each year in fuel assistance to low-income people in the United States.

Mark Wolfe, director of the Washington-based National Energy Assistance Director’s Association, told a reporter, “It’s not just the very, very poor anymore. Now we’re finding families making $25,000 to $35,000 — families you think of as working families — coming in and asking for assistance because the bills have gotten so high.”

State fuel assistance program directors across the nation asked Congress to increase LIHEAP by $1 billion. In response, Bush proposed a 44 percent cut, which would mean terminating fuel assistance benefits for 1.1 million households.

Meanwhile, Mainers extended a warm hand to the people of New Orleans. Protesters conducted a sit-in at the Maine office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Bangor, Dec. 10, to protest HUD’s decision to bulldoze thousands of public housing apartments in New Orleans at a cost to taxpayers of $732 million. Emily Posner, a peace and justice activist in Maine, told the World, “We want to express our concern about the plan to demolish 4,600 public housing units in New Orleans. We believe it is a violation of human rights.” Since Hurricane Katrina, homelessness in New Orleans has doubled to 12,000, many sleeping under the Interstate 10 viaduct or in a park in front of City Hall.

Posner herself spent a year working as a Common Ground volunteer in New Orleans.

Like New Orleans, Maine is struggling with gentrification and destruction of affordable housing, she said.

HUD’s budget for Section 8 housing assistance had been $8.1 billion. Bush slashed it to $5.2 billion in his fiscal year 2008 budget. “His cut has put 400,000 Section 8 housing units at risk. In Maine we would lose about 4,500 units,” Posner said. In the domestic spending bill vetoed by Bush, lawmakers restored about $2 billion in Section 8 funds.

Democratic leaders, lacking the supermajority to override Bush’s veto, are seeking a compromise, offering to reduce by half the $22 billion they approved above Bush’s budget. There was even an offer to fund the Iraq and Afghanistan wars without language requiring troop withdrawals. Bush has stiff-armed any compromise. Congress may be forced to approve a continuing resolution that funds these programs at current levels to avoid a government shutdown before it adjourns for the year.