High home heating bills will be a pinch for all consumers this winter. Most people will have to shift priorities to pay higher natural gas and motor fuel costs this winter.
But for the poor and seniors on fixed incomes, there is little room for budget adjustments. Home heating bills could very well overwhelm their households, forcing some people to make decisions that negatively affect their health and well being. In the past, seniors and the poor have relied on government remedies such as the federal Low-Income Energy Assistance Program to cushion the blow of home heating bills.
In Utah, the American Red Cross administers two energy assistance programs using private funds donated to Questar Gas Co. and Utah Power. The utilities, to their credit, attempt to work with people who are in danger of having their power or gas shut off by establishing payment plans or connecting customers to government assistance programs.
But this year, the state energy policy adviser predicts a $3 million shortfall in funding for the state's assistance program. No additional state or federal funding appears forthcoming. So Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. plans to unveil a plan early this week to solicit private donations to ensure that the poor and senior citizens weather the winter safely.
Utahns have a proud tradition of helping their neighbors. We expect that Huntsman's plea will be embraced with open arms.
There are some concerns that Utahns — for that matter, all Americans — are tapped out. Americans gave generously to aid survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Many charities and non-profits are reporting declines in contributions. High energy prices forced consumers to make different decisions about their philanthropy. When it costs at least $40 to fill the gas tank, disposable income takes a hit.
Although Huntsman's sensitivities are to be commended, it should be understood that this issue is significantly larger in scope. While natural gas prices are expected to be about 30 percent higher in Utah than a year ago, people in the Midwest are anticipating 50 percent increases. The federal government and the Utah Legislature need to provide a greater amount of emergency assistance for the poor and seniors, our most vulnerable citizens.