Thousands of Michigan households are likely to have more trouble paying their heating bills this winter because of a recent court decision that outlawed a $90 million state assistance fund, used primarily to provide energy assistance to the state’s low income.
Ruling July 21 in a suit filed by major utility customers and former Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, the state Court of Appeals said the Michigan Public Service Commission (PSC), which regulates utilities, no longer has authority to maintain the fund and disburse money from it to agencies that assist the needy, such as The Salvation Army and the state LIHEAP office.
Since 2002, the PSC has paid out more than $500 million through the Low Income and Energy Efficiency Fund (LIEEF), most of it to help people pay heating bills, but also some for weatherizing homes and energy-saving projects for all customer classes.
The language to authorize the fund was left out of the sweeping 2008 energy legislation, even though further legislation passed in 2009 indicated that the Legislature intended for the fund to continue to exist. There was an easy fix to the problem:
PSC officials say the LIEEF program could be salvaged by legislation that specifically reauthorizes it, or through an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
The money was still being collected and held in escrow. Months go by, the Legisalture ignored the issue. Now it's December, and the Republicans declared today that they "have a plan". First, they are going to take leftover funding from all those families that they recently cut-off from cash assistance (TANF is welfare funding)...
Horn said a bill by Rep. Amanda Price (R-Holland) will be a supplemental appropriations bills to take $62 million in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding that had been carried over and transfer into the state's Emergency Relief Fund.
Then, they are going to move to end the state program altogether, and insist that the money held in escrow be returned.
The plan also would formalize the end of the collection of a utility charge that ratepayers have been assessed.
"It's a budgetary and statutory fix that protects families, prioritizes spending and keeps costs down for Michigan's ratepayers," said House Speaker Bolger of Marshall.
Actually, all the unpaid bills that utilities will surely see over the winter will be added to your bill in the end anyway - but Bolger must have forgotten to remind the "ratepayers" about that. You can probably add the cost of recovery efforts (read: lawyers and court fees) to your bill too.
The lawmakers responsible, Rep. Amanda Price (R-Holland) and Rep. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth), say they are going to work on a "permanent solution" for heating assistance in January, but don't hold your breath. They had a simple fix in front of them. They chose to steal money that was designated for poor families instead, and end a successful program that was already in place.
Does anyone honestly think that they are going to take the initiative to come up with a new program that will help ordinary people? Of course not. This will be forgotten over the holidays, and more will be forced to live, and maybe even die, in the cold Michigan winter.
The next morning: WOOD TV is reading straight from the AP version of this story, which was short on detail and seems to have simply copied the House Republican press release. They are ignoring the line where they are ending collections that fund the program.