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Trump administration proposes eliminating crucial program that helps low-income people pay for heat in winter

PORTLAND, Maine — The summer air is sizzling as the Fourth of July approaches, yet 86-year-old Richard Perkins already worries about how he’s going to stay warm this winter.

President Donald Trump has proposed eliminating heating aid for low-income Americans, claiming it’s no longer necessary and rife with fraud. People needn’t worry about being left in the cold, he says, because utilities cannot cut off customers in the dead of winter.

But he is wrong on all counts.

The heating program provides a critical lifeline for people like Perkins, and officials close to the program don’t see any widespread fraud. Guidelines for winter shutoffs by utilities vary from state to state and don’t apply to heating oil, a key energy source in the brittle New England winter.

“It’s beyond my thinking that anyone could be that cruel,” said Perkins, a retired restaurateur who relies on the program to keep warm in Ogunquit, Maine.

The proposal to kill the program, which has distributed $3.4 billion to about 6 million households this fiscal year, will face strong opposition in Congress.

Forty-three senators from mostly cold-weather states already signed a letter urging the Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on an appropriations subcommittee to ensure funding for the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, known in many states by its acronym, LIHEAP.

In Maine, the poorest state in New England, the program helped about 77,000 people over the past winter, and those numbers represented less than a quarter of eligible households, said Deborah Turcotte of MaineHousing, which helps to run the program.

Perkins is a typical recipient.

His income was fine 10 or 12 years ago when he retired, but gasoline, food and other expenses grew faster than he anticipated. In the winter, he keeps an eye on his oil storage tank, and the local community action agency sends 100 gallons when it gets low.

It’s difficult for him to keep warm because he’s on a blood thinner, and he shudders at the thought of being cold. But he doesn’t want to move south, either.

“I was born and raised here,” he said. “Maine is part of me. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

Mark Wolfe, of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, said that the Trump administration is relying on an old General Accounting Office report on the fraud claim, and that improvements have been made since then. In Maine, for example, only 100 cases — 0.3 percent of all submitted applications — are being investigated for potential fraud, according to MaineHousing.

And programs aimed at preventing utilities from being turned off wouldn’t protect everyone. Utility regulations vary, with some states preventing shutoffs during the entire winter and others doing so only on exceptionally cold days.

And there’s absolutely no requirement for heating oil and propane dealers, which are not regulated like electric and natural gas utilities, to make deliveries to customers who cannot pay. That’s a big problem in the Northeast, which accounts for more than 80 percent of the nation’s residential heating oil consumption.

Health and Human Services Secretary Thomas Price, who contends the LIHEAP program doesn’t demonstrate “strong performance outcomes,” said difficult decisions are necessary to streamline the government to focus on the administration’s goals of defense and public safety.

The LIHEAP program already has undergone substantial cuts.

The average benefit has been reduced by $100 from 2010 to 2015 as funding was slashed during the Obama administration. That coincides with Venezuela’s Citgo Petroleum Corp. ending participation in a free-oil program run by a Massachusetts-based nonprofit.

Nationwide, the average home heating cost last winter was $1,448 for propane, $1,227 for heating oil, $902 for electricity and $577 for natural gas.

Many observers refuse to accept that the program will be eliminated altogether.

It’s just too popular in Congress, and it also distributes aid to poor people in states like Florida and Arizona to keep cool on blazing hot summer days.

Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, said he and other senators, including fellow Mainer Susan Collins, a Republican, will fight for the program, which he said ensures that needy people “aren’t forced to make the impossible choice between heat and food, medications, or other necessities.”