Emergency Relief Fund Could Receive $62 Million To Help Needy Families With Heating Bills

Republicans in Michigan's House announced a plan Tuesday that they say would decrease utility rates and protect low-income citizens from utility-shutoffs this winter.

Republicans said they would introduce two bills on Wednesday restructuring legislation that affects energy assistance for low-income families.

The first bill would transfer $62 million of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) federal funding that had been carried over into the state's Emergency Relief Fund to help residents unable to afford heating during the winter, the Gongwer News Service reported.

"The House GOP plan strikes the proper balance between protecting people and controlling the high cost of utility bills for ratepayers," Rep. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth), one of the bills sponsors, stated in a news release cited by NBC news. "Our plan is a comprehensive solution to make sure our most vulnerable citizens stay warm this winter."

The second bill would also formally end a charge assessed to utility users to help pay for the program, as well as refund approximately $40 million that had been held in escrow to utility ratepayers.

The money in escrow comes from the Low Income Energy Efficiency Fund (LIEEF), which distributes monies to energy assistance bodies like The Heat and Warmth Fund (THAW). Earlier this year, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that the commission overseeing the program did not have the authority to do so.

THAW spokeswoman Monica Cheick-Luoma told the Michigan Citizen that since its inception in 1985, THAW has distributed $102 million in assistance to 155,000 households statewide, with funding from LIEFF making up 64 percent of the organization's annual budget.

Last week, DTE's annual THAW heating assistance event at Cobo Hall exceeded its projected 5,000 person capacity and organizers had to turn hopeful customers away from the venue, MLive reported.

The $62 million in funds taken from TANF is a one-time grant for energy assistance, now that the LIEEF funding has been discontinued. According to the Gongwer News service, Horn said legislators will begin looking for a long-term solution for funding heat assistance in January.

"We don't know what that's going to be yet," he said.