University students know too well the intensity of a Michigan winter, which can begin in the fall and run well into the spring. The severity of weather coupled with the state’s concerning economic situation — Michigan has the third-highest unemployment in the country, and approximately 17 percent of the state’s population is in poverty — may lead to serious problems for impoverished residents who try to heat their homes this winter.

Previously, a state-funded program, the Low Income and Energy Efficiency Fund, provided assistance to citizens who could not pay their heating bills. The program, however, has run out of money. This leaves 95,000 people who rely on the LIEEF to supplement their rising heating costs without this additional source of income. The Legislature must allocate funds to the program to ensure low-income individuals can properly heat their homes.

Thousands of families in need, especially in cities like Detroit and Flint, live in homes built with poor insulation that can be extremely expensive to properly heat. Each year, stories of residents being hospitalized due to excessive heat or cold capture headlines. The State’s Customer Choice and Electricity Reliability Act of 2000 created LIEEF to address these and other problems. The program was originally supported by funding from the state and a contribution from the Detroit Edison Company. In subsequent years, other energy companies also have given to the fund.

The issue with funding arose in July when a state appeals court struck down the state’s system for funding LIEEF, and the Legislature has not enacted a new system. LIEEF began providing assistance in 2002 based on the utility rate used by DTE and Consumers Energy Co. — Michigan’s two largest utility companies. The appeals court, however, ruled that lawmakers failed to authorize the fee when they rewrote state energy laws several years ago. Rep. Ken Horn (R–Frankenmuth), chair of the state House energy committee, said the Legislature must figure out a way to fund the $60 million in utility assistance.

According to a Detroit News article, as a stopgap measure, Michigan law states that no utility company can stop heating a household between Nov. 1 and March 30. The measure is a relief for many. It is unclear, however, if it will be renewed for the following winter, and the move has prompted social service groups to scramble to help pay heating bills until the end of the month. And with the likelihood of extremely cold temperatures and even snow after the March 30 cut-off point, people without heating assistance could have a serious problem. It’s crucial for this funding to be permanently reinstated so families in need do not suffer in the extreme cold.

While residents will be ensured heat in their homes starting in a month, the possibility that heat will be required in October poses a dangerous situation. The state needs to find funding to keep LIEEF functioning and make sure heat is available for Michigan residents in need.

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