50,000 to be eligible for assistance paying energy bills

Sep. 15—CONCORD — About 50,000 moderate-income households will be eligible for $650 in one-time electricity and heating fuel assistance this winter under a proposal that cleared the New Hampshire Legislature Thursday.

Legislative leaders in both political parties had rejected Gov. Chris Sununu's earlier plan to offer all residents a one-time $100 discount on their electricity bills.

The bill (HB 2023) would spend $42 million of the state's budget surplus to offer the energy assistance that includes spending $7 million to shore up an existing electricity aid program for low-income families.

The plan will increase subsidized energy assistance above the existing federal Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP) that is available to families making up to 60% of the state's median family income.

This change would make families making up to 75% of the median income eligible to get $200 toward their electricity bills and $450 to offset the cost of winter heating fuel.

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said the existing LIHEAP limit is $72,000 for a family of four, and this bill would raise that limit to $90,000 for the same family.

"We can debate the causes of it all day long, but what we can't debate is hard-working New Hampshire families are struggling, and they need help," Bradley said.

Despite the significant changes to his plan, Sununu praised House Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry, and Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, for shepherding the bill through.

"New Hampshire just delivered the largest energy relief package this state has ever seen, helping families in need this winter — using our state surplus funds," Sununu said.

"While this final legislation looks a little different from what we originally proposed, this is a big win, and I'd like to thank Speaker Packard and Senate President Morse for getting this across the finish line. Thanks to strong fiscal management, New Hampshire is able to invest state-surplus funds to help families get through this winter."

Packard said it was essential for this measure to have bipartisan support.

"By coming together today, we chose New Hampshire citizens over party politics," Packard said.

The action comes after three of the state's four largest electric utilities have gotten approval to double the monthly charge they pass on to customers for the price of purchased power.

As for winter fuel, the cost for a gallon of heating oil now averages $5, up from $2.80 a year ago.

House Deputy Speaker Steven Smith, R-Charlestown, said this money will not be sent to eligible families but instead would go directly to power and energy delivery companies.

To receive the benefit, these eligible residents have to apply for it through the state's five community action programs that operate the existing LIHEAP program.

"This is a short-term Band-Aid. It is not any more than that," said state Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, who nonetheless urged her colleagues to embrace it. "Many of our constituents are struggling with the fact that the utilities have dramatically increased the charges that will be felt by every level of income."

Some House conservatives tried to block it

Rep. Kat McGhee, D-Hollis, praised legislative leaders for rejecting Sununu's proposal that would have given millionaires and low-income families the same one-time break.

Some House Republican conservatives opposed the idea of taking this bill up because lawmakers had little time to study the measure, and it did not have a public hearing.

Rep. Andrew Prout, R-Hudson, called it a "terrible wealth redistribution" scheme.

"The process of having hearings on bills is important and this has no phasing out provision," Prout said. "If a household makes one dollar too much, you get nothing."

The House voted 259-66 to take the bill up, which easily cleared the two-thirds majority requirement.

State Senate Democrats had tried without success to make further changes to it, to increase from $1 million to $5 million the size of renewable net metering energy projects and to give $10 million more to a weatherization program for low- and moderate-income families.

"Let's do what is right for our present and future generations," said state Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, who is the Democratic nominee for governor.

Bradley said making this change would risk the entire bill because House GOP leaders said they would not accept any further amendments to it.

The Senate killed the Democratic plan on a party line, 13-10 vote.