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Trump Budget Cuts Could Leave Poor NJ Residents in the Cold

The president’s proposed budget eliminates funding for LIHEAP, popular program that helps needy families pay utility bills

DCA commissioner Charles Richman
DCA commissioner Charles Richman

Next winter may be colder and more expensive for hundreds of thousands of low-income residents in New Jersey.

The proposed budget put forward by President Donald Trump last month eliminates funding for the popular Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides financial help to needy families to pay utility bills.

If Congress signs off on the cuts, it would slash $140 million in federal funding targeted to the state, which would assist with paying energy bills to 300,000 households that qualify for the program, according to the fiscal year 2018 budget of Gov. Chris Christie. Typically, the assistance averages about $350.

In a state that typically ranks among the top 10 in energy costs in the nation, any cuts in the program would be hard to absorb, particularly for those with low household incomes, according to consumer advocates.

Between the cuts in Meals on Wheels and LIHEAP, people are going to be in dire straits,’’ warned Dena Mottola, associate director for New Jersey Citizen Action, also referring to the proposed elimination of the program that delivers food to seniors.

In New Jersey, the program is administered by the state Department of Community Affairs, which is holding off assessing the impact of the elimination of LIHEAP funding and other cuts in federal assistance until Congress acts.

In a hearing before the Senate Budget Committee on the department’s budget, Commissioner Charles Richman was not asked about the effect of proposed cutbacks in federal funds for LIHEAP. In response to the Office of Legislative Services’ query, the department answered: “The impact of federal funding changes cannot be calculated until Congress enacts a federal budget.’’

When asked about cuts in the community development block-grant program, Richman deferred, saying “it’s not real. I don’t want to create a furor that the sky is falling until we really know what is happening.’’

In unveiling the budget, the Trump administration defended the elimination of funding for LIHEAP. “Compared to other income support programs that serve similar populations, LIHEAP is a lower-impact program and is unable to demonstrate strong performance outcomes,’’ according to the budget document.

But Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, said the cuts in energy assistance is part and parcel of the Trump administration’s “slash and burn’’ budget. “It’s a full-front assault on environmental programs and the social safety net,’’ he said.

The cuts, if they take effect, also could put additional financial pressure on the state’s own programs to provide financial assistance in paying energy bills.

Under the program, low-income households that meet a certain threshold pay no more than 6 percent of their income on their energy bills. The rest is paid by a surcharge on other customers’ bills to provide the subsidy to those eligible households.

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