11:26 am
Tue December 6, 2011

Help with heating bills

Every winter, people in Michigan die because they can’t afford to pay their heating bills, and the utilities shut their power off.

Sometimes, they just freeze to death. Most of the time, however, they die in house fires caused by desperate attempts to get some sort of heat, such as using a portable stove.

An entire family died a few years ago when the father attempted to use fire to thaw out frozen pipes so they could get some water. Instead, he burned the house down.

We are still an enormously rich country, and a state where  baseball players make millions of dollars every year. There is no excuse for allowing children to freeze to death in the cold.

We may be going through tough economic times, but this is not the Paleolithic Era. There are a couple of myths out there about this. One is that it is against the law for utilities to turn people’s heat off in the winter. This is not true, and they do pull the plug on thousands.

The other myth is that there is lots of help available. That’s not true either. There is a Detroit-based non-profit group called THAW, the Heat and Warmth Fund, which exists to provide low-income households with energy assistance, especially in winter.

But it never has enough money to help everyone. This year, it looks like the need will be greater than ever, and so far donations to THAW are below expectations.

There are a couple other signs of trouble ahead. The state Court of Appeals ruled this summer that the Michigan Public Service Commission didn’t have the authority to distribute $90 million it had collected to assist residents with heating costs.

This is money that comes from surcharges on utilities, and has been used to help people for a dozen years. Without that money, people will be desperate. There are bound to be more desperate people than ever, now that tens of thousands of children are losing cash welfare assistance, forever, thanks to another new law.

Here’s my question on this cold morning: Is anybody going to do anything about this before we get into deep winter? When the court of appeals ruled that the MPSC couldn’t use the $90 million to help with heating costs, State Representative Ellen Cogen Lipton introduced a bill to allow that. She had more than a dozen sponsors. But the bill hasn’t even had a hearing, for one simple reason.

They are all Democrats. Republicans control the House, and the last thing they want to do is pass a Democratic bill to help the poor stay warm. There are two different Republican plans now being debated, one in the House and one in the Senate, which would provide some relief. But they rely on very different mechanisms to fund the program, and it isn’t clear if they can be reconciled.

Nor is it clear if the legislature has the moral will to get this done before people start freezing to death. Mike Nofs of Battle Creek, who chairs the Senate Energy Committee, told the Gongwer News Service, “We’re looking at taking care of the problem this winter.” There are thousands of people who hope that Lansing does something more than look, and does it fast.