The New England Council and Gov. M. Jodi Rell are among those who say the U.S. Senate (above) and House of Representatives need to increase funding for federal home heating assistance programs. Rising home heating costs are expected to be particularly hard on residents of New England.

Between the war in Iraq and the seemingly endless parade of devastating hurricanes hitting some of the United States’ major oil refineries, everything from driving a car to heating a home is going to be more expensive this winter. And, aside from residents of Alaska, New Englanders are going to be the hardest-hit by increasing home heating costs.

For many in the New England states, paying for those costs will be difficult, if not impossible, so some states and regional organizations have started preparing for that.

“This is a quality-of-life issue,” said James T. Brett, president and chief executive officer of The New England Council, which recently called for increased funding to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP. “We live in a region of the country that is colder than all the other regions of the country.”

In Connecticut, Gov. M. Jodi Rell earlier this week signed into law Senate Bill 2100, a piece of legislation passed during the General Assembly’s current special session. The bill provides a range of aid for low- and moderate-income families to assist with energy costs this winter.

The bill increases the benefits that low-income families receive through the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program and adds benefits for moderate-income families through the Contingency Heating Assistance Program. The bill also increases the number of households that qualify for weatherization services, creates a furnace tune-up program for all income levels and establishes a sales tax exemption on insulation and other energy efficiency products and equipment between Nov. 25 and April 1, 2006.

“Connecticut is doing its part to make sure that our citizens, whatever their income and economic condition, are protected as the cold weather arrives,” Rell said in a prepared statement. “I remain concerned about the state’s fiscal situation and the toll these energy prices are taking on our state budget. But I am also concerned about the toll they will be taking on family budgets.

“We are also waiting for the federal government to meet its responsibility to increase the funding for programs such as CEAP, which relies heavily on the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program grant. I have joined Congresswoman Nancy Johnson in calling on oil companies to donate a significant portion of their third-quarter profits to programs such as CEAP so that we can be assured no one will go cold this winter.”

The New England Council has been pushing to increase the funding for LIHEAP, which different proposals in the House of Representatives and the Senate have funded between $2 billion and $2.18 billion for fiscal year 2006, to at least $4 billion. According to the council, the Department of Energy this year projects that the residential per-household expenditure for fuel this winter will increase 71 percent for natural gas, 17 percent for electricity, 31 percent for heating oil and 40 percent for propane compared to last winter.

As it stands, families who were eligible for vouchers to pay for energy costs will get the same amount in vouchers this year, but they won’t pay for what they did last year.

“These vouchers that have been given in the past just won’t go as far,” Brett said.

‘An Uphill Battle’

The funding allocated for Connecticut this year was $38.9 million, which served almost 80,000 households. Eligible households are at less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level, or less than 200 percent for senior citizens or disabled people.

But according to the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance, an organization that advocates for increased LIHEAP funding, many in Connecticut who qualify for LIHEAP have not been served in the past. In 2002, there were more than 420,000 households that qualified for energy assistance under the program. Of those, 21.3 percent were served by the $36.7 million allocated to the state.

More recent data was not available because calls to the Connecticut Department of Social Services, which administers LIHEAP in the state, were not returned by press time.

The matter has come up several times in Congress with attempts to increase the funding by $1.5 billion to $2 billion, but a supermajority Senate vote is required to pass any increase in new funding.

“Unfortunately, these amendments have passing with a majority, but we need 60 votes,” Brett said.

Fifty-four senators have agreed to vote for the increase so far, Brett said, and several have offered amendments.

“It’s an uphill battle,” he said.

But he is optimistic the increase could pass. Most people recognize the importance of LIHEAP, Brett said.

“It’s a battle, and the battle continues,” he said.

About 349,600 households in New England received assistance in fiscal year 2005 – a 29 percent increase over the year before.

“This program offers critical assistance so those in need will not have to make the choice between paying for heat or paying for rent, food or medicine. It is important that Congress act on this soon so that the states are prepared to handle requests for assistance,” Brett said in a prepared statement.

According to the council, the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association reports that the number of U.S. households receiving LIHEAP assistance has increased from 4.2 million in 2002 to an estimated 5.1 million in FY 2005 – the highest level in 10 years.

“In FY 2005, Congress appropriated $2.186 billion for LIHEAP. But program funding has not kept pace with the increase in energy prices,” Brett said.