May 31, 2002

Wyden Calls on Administration to Release LIHEAP Funds

"Let me start this morning by giving you something to think about. If you were standing on one of Oregon's beautiful Pacific Coast beaches, and saw someone drowning, it would be wrong not to help - especially if you had the lifesaving skills to do it. Right? "This morning, tens of thousands of Oregon families are struggling to keep their heads above water when it comes to paying their power bills. The White House has $600 million to help them. But the White House won't let the money go. "The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance program, or LIHEAP, is the primary federal energy assistance program for low-income households. "As our guests here today can tell you, most of these households are either families with children or elderly people living on fixed incomes. "For Fiscal Year 2002, Congress provided $300 million in LIHEAP contingency funds in addition to the regular budget. You add that to $300 million from an earlier appropriation, and that totals . . . $600 million. "When Congress appropriated that money, it gave the White House the power to release those funds as needed. Well, I'll tell you: we need it here in Oregon, but no one's seeing those funds. "We are here today to tell the stories of people without power. We're here to tell you what the White House's refusal to release these funds really means where the rubber meets the road. "Oregon has run out of its regular allotment of LIHEAP money. Energy costs are up, unemployment is up, and more folks need help just to keep the lights on and the heat running. "In Oregon, 10,000 low income households have been disconnected because folks can't pay their power bills. That's a statistic, but there are real people behind it. I'm talking about 10,000 families who don't have lights. They're burning candles. They're sitting in the dark at night. "More than 30,000 low income households in Oregon are on the verge of losing their lights, with no help in sight. They've been wait-listed for energy assistance. "Meanwhile, their power bills are going up. PGE's residential rates: up 31 percent. Northwest Natural Gas: up 20 percent. "And right now, the President has $600 million in extra LIHEAP money at his disposal. He could be helping. Today I am here to say once again, Mr. President, release these funds. "I've definitely said it before. My Senate colleagues and I passed a resolution seven months ago asking for the President's help. I sent him a letter myself in January of this year. I sent him another letter today. And I'm going to keep telling him to release those funds. "Some people may think the President is justified in holding on to LIHEAP money because we haven't had a blizzard in Portland, or we're not having a heat wave. But LIHEAP funds aren't for weather emergencies. They're for energy emergencies. And I'll bet any of these folks here today will tell you that having your lights turned off is an emergency even in 70-degree weather. "And Oregon isn't alone: fourteen other states and the District of Columbia are out of LIHEAP money and waiting for more. You want to talk about dire straits? It's summer in Georgia, and it's estimated that 30,000 people will have their power, including their air conditioning and electric fans, disconnected in the next three months. "The funds exist to keep the lights on all across America. I know they do. I voted to appropriate them. I don't want to see them disappear in a cynical game of politics, where the White House waits until states like Oregon give up, close their LIHEAP offices, and then pass out checks like party favors to other states. "The White House is used to hearing Senators yammer on. Maybe our guests today can get the Administration to listen. I thank them for being here, and I'm glad their stories will be heard."