WASHINGTON -- Congress is poised to pump more money into a program that helps the poor pay their utility bills as California and other Western states struggle to respond to surging demand for the federal assistance.
Although the money is distributed under a formula that favors colder states in the Northeast and Midwest, advocates said the proposed funding boost would give California a proportionately bigger share than it normally gets.
The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which will dispense $1.4 billion this year, would receive an additional $1 billion annually if Congress passes a comprehensive energy bill introduced Monday by Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
While the "LIHEAP" increase enjoys strong bipartisan support, other elements of Murkowski's bill face strong opposition, particularly a provision to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
Some lawmakers on Monday urged Congress and President Bush to bypass Murkowski's bill, which might not come up for a final vote until summer. They said Congress should approve an additional $1 billion in LIHEAP funds immediately to meet a recent surge in requests for the assistance.
The largest single share of the funds, $174 million, goes to New York, and Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania get more money than California.
Some government officials and independent analysts say the Northeast and Midwest deserve the largest share because of their severe weather.
Others, however, contend the funds should be distributed to states based on the size of their low-income populations, or under a new formula that gives greater weight to those hardest hit by high fuel prices, no matter where they live or what the thermometer says.
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