DES MOINES, Iowa — The Iowa Senate voted 41-8 Tuesday to provide an extra $2 million in state money to help needy Iowans pay for rising heating costs associated with frigid weather conditions.
Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Cedar Rapids, floor manager for Senate File 2110, said many Iowa families are seeing propane prices “take a roller-coaster ride” due to heavy fall crop-drying demands, pipeline maintenance interruptions and sub-zero temperatures in the upper Midwest that have “scooped” propane supplies.
“This is a perfect storm,” Mathis told senators during Tuesday’s floor debate. “Along with propane problems, there are broken furnaces, higher energy bills and something we can’t control – a really cold and long winter which is throwing people into a financial dilemma and dangerous safety issues.”
Mathis said the $2 million supplemental state appropriation will help about 85,000 families with incomes at the 150 percent poverty level. She noted that the money would be available to any household qualifying for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), not just homes heated with propane.
Rep. Chuck Soderberg, R-LeMars, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he met last week with officials from the governor’s office and the state Department of Human Rights and currently there are adequate funds to meet the assistance needs. He said he planned to monitor the demand and the weather conditions over the next seven weeks to see if things change through the program’s April 1 cutoff.
Jimmy Centers, spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad, said the governor’s office has remained in close contact with stakeholders on the propane shortage issue.
“We have not received requests for additional state LIHEAP funds," added Centers, who noted that the federal Department of Health & Human Services released a $7.4 million LIHEAP appropriation to Iowa on Jan. 31 to help families heat their homes.
According to the Legislature Services Agency, Iowa’s federal LIHEAP allotment for fiscal 2014 stood at $53.7 million. That was up slightly from $51.3 million the previous year but down from $71.5 million in fiscal 2011.
During a Senate Commerce Committee meeting Tuesday, Deb Grooms of the Iowa Propane Gas Association described the current situation with price spikes and supply issues a “rare occurrence” for Iowa.
Before senators voted 41-8 to approve the $2 million state supplement – which was opposed by eight Republicans – Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, offered an amendment to scoop $1.9 million in unencumbered economic development funds and reallocate $1 million in administrative expenses to provide nearly $3 million for LIHEAP recipients.
However, Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, argued the state Economic Development Authority already had plans to target the dollars Rozenboom cited for job-creation efforts, while Mathis called the proposed funding shifts a “shell game” that caught economic development officials by surprise before the amendment was voted down 22-27.
“Last week I heard some senators say they wanted to take a ‘wait-and-see approach’ and still others said the churches should meet these multi-million dollar needs,” Mathis said. “New and real numbers, real data, not just stories have just been released that will show we need to answer the call today to help our fellow Iowans.”