Published January 10, 2006
As old man winter prepares to blast Michiganders with another round of his blistery cold gales, homeowners across the state face skyrocketing heating bills to remain warm. The rising price of natural gas has caused heating bills to increase by as much as 50 percent from last year. While some residents face impossible choices between basic living necessities, state lawmakers are working on legislation to provide relief for those who may otherwise have their heat shut off. Politicians must look beyond party lines and work together quickly to enact legislation that will help low-income residents stay warm.
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Solutions to the heating bill crisis have differed between political parties. Democrats wish to end utility companies' practice of shutting off the heat for those unable to pay, as well as permitting the Michigan Public Service Commission to use $5 million originally marked for research to help homeowners pay their bills and make their homes more energy efficient. Republicans prefer easing the income requirement to receive the Home Heating Credit and offering tax credits to those who buy energy efficient appliances.
All of these proposals are promising, but lawmakers must not let them get tied up in political debates. Needy homeowners require assistance as soon as possible, and rising natural gas costs are straining even middle-class homeowners. The deepest throes of winter's fury are already upon us, yet lawmakers remain unsure if they will be able to institute relief programs this season. Although such delayed legislation might help out next winter, that is no comfort to the homeowner or renter who must choose between food and heat.
Several protections for low-income residents are already in place. Yet programs like The Heat and Warmth Fund - a nonprofit organization created in 1986 to help low-income individuals pay their heating bills - have seen contributions from the state diminish this season. Though Michigan contributed $6.5 million last year to these programs, the state curtailed its contribution by more than one third this year despite rising natural gas costs. Even if the state had not cut its contributions, the rising cost of natural gas is sure to give organizations like THAW the cold shoulder.
Some utility companies, like southeast Michigan's DTE Energy, have taken the lead in providing help for those unable to pay drastically rising bills. By instituting a payment plan, DTE allows customers to spread out their higher bills over the entire year so that the crunch is less drastic in the winter months. While this is a good start, energy companies can do more, such as providing free efficiency audits, which normally cost between $300 and $400, to inform residents how to better insulate their homes.
Most importantly, though, state lawmakers need to set aside their differences and come through for the citizens they represent in a timely manner. The state may be facing a budget crisis, but it must also ensure that in the face of rising fuel costs, Michigan's low-income residents are not left out in the cold.