Lawmakers Look To Help Residents With Energy Costs

TRENTON – Assembly Democrats said ominous signs regarding winter fuel bills, looming cold weather and the global economic crisis simply re-emphasize the need to help low-income seniors and disabled persons pay gas and utility bills.

The lawmakers are sponsoring a measure (A688) that would provide for an annual cost-of-living increase in Lifeline Credit and Tenants Lifeline Assistance payments. The bill has been released by two legislative committees.

The increase would be proportional to the increase in the Social Security benefit for the year or 5 percent, whichever is lower.

The current level of assistance for gas and utility payments is just $225 per year.

The legislators said two new forecasts highlight the need for more help, especially amid the global economic meltdown that has left many hard-working New Jerseyans worried about their finances.

The federal Energy Information Administration estimates heating U.S. homes with oil this winter will cost $450 more than a year ago, or 23 percent higher. Gas, propane and electricity will also increase, though not as much, the agency estimates.

Meanwhile, is predicting one of the hardest winters in years throughout much of the east. It predicts a colder and snowier winter, and even warned of “a one-two punch of higher heating prices and lower temperatures.”

“Low-income residents and senior citizens cannot be thrown into the teeth at another winter with an energy assistance credit that will cover a smaller part of their bill than it did last year,” said Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer (D-Essex).

The lawmakers noted the buying power of the credit would continue to erode without a cost-of-living increase.

“Low and moderate-income families and seniors are already struggling to cope with rising prices in all commodities including food and gas,” said Assemblyman Anthony Chiappone (D-Hudson). “Providing this cost-of-living increase will give them one less thing to worry about.”

Assemblywoman Elease Evans (D-Passaic) noted oil users will be among the hardest hit, with an expected heating bill of $2,388 for the October-March heating season.

“More and more people are struggling just to get by,” Evans said. “The combination of higher heating bills and a colder winter could push some over the brink. We can’t let that happen. Everyone deserves a warm home.”

Assemblywoman Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) said people who cannot pay their heating bills risk falling ill as they cope with the cold.

“This can especially hurt our most vulnerable citizens,” said Pou. “We haven’t increased this assistance since 1984, despite significant increases in the cost of natural gas and electricity. It’s time to do more.”

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