CHICAGO — “It’s cold now and it’s only going to get colder. We need to take action now to get through the cold winter ahead,” Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn told reporters here as he announced a campaign to pass an “Illinois Affordable Energy Plan” to keep the heat on this winter for more than 300,000 natural gas customers in need.

Speaking of the growing numbers of low-income families hit by high gas prices, Quinn declared, “Before we let the major gas companies take control, we want customers to know that we will be pressuring President Bush in D.C. to invest more money toward affordable power programs for working families.”

The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that natural gas prices will rise as much as 77 percent this winter in the Midwest and up to 33 percent in the Northeast. Every winter in Chicago, thousands of families are disconnected because they can’t keep up with astronomical heating bills. This winter, with skyrocketing gas prices, could be disastrous for low-income families here and across the nation.

Illinois state Rep. Marlow Colvin (D-Chicago), religious leaders, labor and community groups and consumers who have received aid from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) joined Quinn at the Oct. 20 press conference to call for passage of the affordable energy plan.

“We don’t want a public health issue,” or “a tragedy because people are using stoves, electric heaters, and then become victimized by homelessness,” said Colvin. He was referring to the many cases where households are lost to tragic fires during cold winters because they turn to dangerous heating devices when their gas is disconnected. “We need everybody to make phone calls to elected officials asking them to vote for the energy plan and help common people, in a democracy with the right to have heat in their homes,” Colvin concluded.

The Illinois affordable energy plan includes a “percentage of income” program that would stabilize customers’ utility bills. Applicants who sign up for the plan would be required to complete a home weatherization curriculum, and no more than 10 percent of their income would be assessed to pay for heating bills. Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Nevada already have working models of this program.

Corie Reed, an African American resident of Chicago’s West Side and single mother of three small children, told the press conference her gas was shut off in August. “We are all in one small room with a space heater trying to stay warm,” she said. “I’m on a low fixed income that is the same amount as my gas bill.

“How can I afford that?”

Lillian Drummond, a tenacious 84-year-old South Austin Coalition leader known as “bulldog Drummond,” was also at the press conference. “This is a time of great stress and suffering for poor people in our country,” she told the World. “Every year tens of thousands of utility customers try to survive without essential utility service. This is unacceptable!”

Of the 30 million households eligible for low-income energy assistance under LIHEAP, only 4 million — less than 1 in 7 — receive aid through the program. While the Bush administration continues to fund the Pentagon to the tune of about $702.3 billion, including over $200 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress appropriated only $2.2 billion for LIHEAP for 2005. Although the 2006 budget bill has not yet been passed, President Bush is proposing to cut this to $2 billion. Experts say up to $35 billion is needed to fully fund LIHEAP.

The Illinois Affordable Energy Campaign, a working group formed in 2003 of low-income advocates, energy policy advisers, researchers and community leaders, is proposing major reforms to LIHEAP. Funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, LIHEAP began in the 1970s to help low-income households pay for energy services. It basically helps families stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Homeowners, renters, roomers and subsidized housing tenants are all eligible to apply for energy assistance through LIHEAP.

A fact sheet handed out at the press conference noted that, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the typical low-income family in the U.S. spends as much as 20 percent of its income on energy.

The Illinois campaign is one of a growing number of grassroots initiatives around the country in response to soaring heating bills, calling for curbing utility disconnections for low-income families and demanding action from elected officials to make energy affordable.