Concerns over significantly higher home heating costs this winter are prompting the Delaware State House of Representatives to return to work on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2005.
The special session comes on the heels of a hearing last week by the House Natural Resources and Environmental Management Committee that was held to examine the issue.
Committee chair Joe Booth (R-Georgetown), said that state officials and representatives of the energy industries that testified at the hearing confirmed the need for action.
"We were told a combination of factors could lead to this being a difficult winter for many Delaware families," Rep. Booth said. "Rising energy prices, the potential for a cold winter and uncertainty over how much the federal government will budget to help low-income families created a situation that needs to be acted on now."
According to a recent report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, all homeowners can expect to pay more to stay warm this season.
According to the EIA, the average household using natural gas for its primary heating is expected to spend about $350 (48 percent)more this winter. Households relying on heating oil should be paying about 32 percent more this winter ($378). Households heating primarily with propane could experience an average of jump of $325 (30 percent more than last winter).
Speaker of the House Terry Spence said the quick action to come back into session was driven by the need to take action before the cold weather sets in and to give the Senate an opportunity to consider the legislation. State senators must return to Dover next week to vote on judicial nominations.
"This can't wait until the legislative session resumes in January There are many low-income families that are going to be hard pressed to find the money they'll need to pay their heating bills this winter. We need to get this done."
The House plans to act on several bills Thursday:
- It is uncertain how much money Delaware's federally-funded Low-income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP) will receive for the upcoming winter. Congress has still not approved a funding bill, but the amounts being discussed thus far could leave Delaware without enough money to meet demand. This bill would appropriate $3 million to act as a LIHEAP Contingency Fund and would be available should the federal funding prove insufficient. Any of this money unused by April 1, 2006 would be returned to the General Fund.
- Another bill would appropriate $2 million to address the backlog of weatherization projects in Delaware. Ken Davis, a Department of Health and Social Services staffer who administers the federally-funded program in Delaware, says he is able to service about 450 homes annually with the money he receives from the feds. However, he told the committee last Thursday that this level of funding is insufficient to deal with the backlog of approximately 1,000 homes he has on his waiting list.
- Appropriate $75,000 to be split evenly between LIHEAP, the Delaware Energy Office and the Weatherization Program to market/promote their programs. The officials administering these programs told the committee they are in need of such funding to reach the people that could be helped by their programs.
- A concurrent resolution urging Delaware's congressional delegation to strongly support and promote congressional action to increase LIHEAP and Weatherization funding for the upcoming winter by at least 35 percent over last year's levels.
According to the Controller General's office, there was $4.7 million in unappropriated funding at the start of Fiscal Year 2006 (July 1st) that was available to be tapped. The latest state revenue estimates issued by the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council(DEFAC) in September have expanded that figure to nearly $13 million.(Both figures take into account the state's statutory limitation that spending cannot normally exceed 98 percent of projected revenues.)
"The total cost of these proposals would be no more than $5.075 million," Speaker Spence said. "The bulk of this money, $3 million, would be in the form of a contingency fund, so it only gets used if the federal funding runs out and we still have people who need help. If it doesn't get used by April, it gets put back in the General Fund."
"I'm anticipating that we'll pass all these bills with overwhelming support," Rep. Booth said. "I'm the prime sponsor of this legislation, but I'm calling for any representative or senator - Republican, Democrat or Independent - to sign on as a co-sponsor. This isn't about partisan politics, it's about anticipating the needs of the people we serve and taking preventative action now. We have the money in hand and we know the challenges many of our residents will be facing. We need to do this and do this now. There is simply no excuse for not acting."
"There are a lot of people out there worried about how they're going to keep their homes warm this winter," Speaker Spence said. "In many cases, these are our most vulnerable citizens - the elderly and disabled. We have a responsibility to help these people and no legislator should be able to turn away from that with a clear conscience."