More than 400,000 in CT can't afford energy bills, as heating assistance drops

Just as the state's home heating assistance fund drops dramatically, a new report says it's even harder to heat your home in Connecticut.
Now, lawmakers are considering a funding boost.
"AFFORDABILITY GAP"
As the temperatures go down, energy bills go up.
"It did go up a couple of hundred, but, you know, it's not that bad," Greg Neil, of Norwalk.
"Price-wise, it is what it is," added Al Aquila, of Stamford.
According to a new report released Thursday by Operation Fuel, an organization that helps customers pay their energy bills, Connecticut's "affordability gap" has jumped 37% in just three years. Nearly half a million households now pay more than they can afford.
"And that doesn't account for the rate increases last year," said Gannon Long, Operation Fuel's chief program officer. "Other things that maybe have made that, actually, worse."
Although electric and natural gas prices are much lower than last winter, demand for assistance is exploding. Operation Fuel has gotten so many applications that they're now paused until Jan. 8. Before applying, customers need to gather proof of the last four weeks of income for all household members, the name of their fuel vendor (for deliverable fuel customers) or a utility bill and payment history (for electric, gas and water customers).
ASSISTANCE FUNDING CUTS
Because Congress has failed to pass supplemental dollars, the federally-funded Connecticut Energy Assistance Program is slated for a 31% cut this winter – even as demand is projected to increase 10%.
It could cost up to $30 million more to fill the gap, according to state Consumer Counsel Claire Coleman. Top state lawmakers said they're willing to allocate more money to CEAP, but the next legislative session doesn't start until February.
"If Congress can't get their act together – which I don't hold out much hope – if the legislature has to step in and make sure people can keep lights on, keep the heat on, that's a really important thing," said state House Speaker Matt Ritter (D-Hartford). "Last year, if people recall, we put, sort of, money in 'escrow' that ended up not being utilized ultimately. That might be a good option to look at."
Republicans warned about passing additional regulations that could drive energy prices higher.
"We have to be very careful going forward that, as we pass legislation, we're actually helping the situation, and not making it worse," said state Rep. Holly Cheeseman (R-East Lyme), the top Republican on the legislature's tax-writing committee.
SOME GOOD NEWS
There is a bright spot. This winter, some Eversource and United Illuminating customers can take advantage of a new Low-Income Discount Rate, which shaves 10-50% off their monthly bill.
"Starting in January, the lowest income ratepayers will get a 50% discount on their electric bill," said Amy McLean with Avangrid, which owns UI, Southern Connecticut Gas and Connecticut Natural Gas.
Meantime, some people are finding their own ways to save.
"I converted from oil to gas about three years ago," said Aquila. "Much better."
RESOURCES FOR HELP
Here's how you can get help paying your heating bill: