Energy assistance cuts leave Minnesota’s economy in the cold


The coldest winter months are  here, and for some Minnesotans, that means hoping for assistance to cover their heating bills. Federal funding for low-income energy assistance programs have decreased significantly, impacting Minnesota’s urban, suburban, and rural communities.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce distributes funding to more than 45 energy assistance organizations statewide. Many of them are independent community action programs focused on providing basic services to low-income residents.

But this year, the federal government has sliced a vital funding source in half. Programs like Three Rivers Energy Assistance, serving Southeastern Minnesota, are decreasing the amount of assistance granted to community members. Three Rivers now only guarantees home energy assistance to those who applied prior to October 25.

In this economic and political climate, there’s little chance state revenue will help close the federal funding gap to assist Minnesotans in paying their energy bills.

Fortunately, those who are not able to cover their heating costs aren’t going to be left in the cold this winter. As Governor Pawlenty has stated in the past, “Keeping families warm in winter is not just about comfort, it’s about the health and safety of our citizens.”

The “Cold Weather Rule” is a statute that prevents utility companies from shutting off the heat for those who can’t pay – from October 15 to April 15. Even if they may not be able to afford heating costs, those Minnesotans who rely on energy assistance programs like Three Rivers aren’t at a dead end.

So why is the decrease in federal aid for energy assistance problematic? Because someone has to pay the cost of heating homes. Even if it is the local utility company, there’s a gap in the sequence of exchanges that hold up Minnesota’s economy. When federal funding cannot meet its assistance goals, state policy fills the void by requiring utility companies to cover some of the costs.

This policy may work for the five coldest months of the year, but in the long term, we need an economically sustainable solution. It’s one indicator that Minnesota’s economic growth could freeze during the winter months. Statewide, we’re behind the curve, and ought to take measures that help Minnesota circumvent federal cuts.

Without doubt, this is a question of growth and how the state can maintain its economy in a nation that is still recovering from the recession.

In the mean time, it’s important that all Minnesotans strive to be energy efficient so their heating costs aren’t as high. Insulation, furnaces and water heaters are three factors that can remarkably improve a home’s energy efficiency and lower its costs.

It’s also important that we invest in programs which will help low-income renters and homeowners with these improvements.  When the weather breaks, we can get to work installing more efficient windows, better insulation and roofing.  Hopefully the work provides jobs for some of the folks who couldn’t afford to pay their heating bills this winter.