Assembly Committee Makes Fast Work of Bills for Home Energy Assistance

Included on docket cleared in just six minutes, three-bill package to help end fraud and abuse in federally funded Low-Income Energy Assistance Program

In the State House, there typically is no need to rush to the scheduled start of legislative committee hearings — other than the unusually fast-paced Assembly Telecommunication and Utilities Committee.

Monday proved no exception. The committee ran through a five-bill agenda, managing to unanimously release the entire board list in just six minutes, including time for the Pledge of Allegiance and a moment of silence.

“That’s a record,’’ someone noted as Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer), the chairman of the committee, adjourned the hearing, which failed to include any discussion or debate on the bills before lawmakers.

In fairness, the committee had previously considered much of the agenda in the prior legislative session — a three-bill package aimed at reducing fraud in a popular federally funded program that helps the needy pay their home energy bills. The legislation died after being released from the panel last May.

The three bills stemmed from a report from the Office of the State Comptroller in the fall of 2016 that found flaws in how benefits in the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program were disbursed.

The report found that private agencies used by the state to hand out benefits were not monitored closely enough to prevent fraud, including cases where inaccurate Social Security numbers were used in applications for assistance — including, on multiple occasions, a number for a dead person.

In the report, the state comptroller discovered benefits were paid to three ineligible public employees, including one who earned $90,000 annually, or about $50,000 above the maximum threshold limit.

The program is overseen by the state Department of Community Affairs, which has said the report focuses on only one of 17 agencies it manages.

The legislative package incorporates the comptroller’s recommendations to better ensure that LIHEAP benefits are not awarded to ineligible applicants, curb fraud, and guarantee that the most deserving applicants receive the awards.

To that end, one bill (A-2543) would require DCA to verify the income of applicants seeking benefits before awarding them by cross-checking with other state departments, including the Division of Taxation.

Another bill (A-2544) would require the DCA to prepare and annually update governing policies and eligibility requirements for the LIHEAP program. The final measure (A-2540) would require the state to verify it is not handing out benefits to a deceased person.