Wednesday, January 24, 2001

Officials seek heat solutions

Natural gas costs grab attention

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — The high cost of heating homes and businesses has public officials scrambling to bring some relief.

        Homeowners across the region are paying two to three times more to stay warm this winter than they did last year, because of a surge in natural gas prices and a colder winter.

        Gov. Bob Taft is expected to make room in his State of the State address today for a proposal intended to help low- to modest-income families struggling to heat their homes.

        In Kentucky, Gov. Paul Patton has urged federal regulators to permit an increased flow of liquid propane through the one pipeline that is the commonwealth's major source of that fuel.

        As early as September, Mr. Patton had also requested and received $4.7 million in allocations for the commonwealth from the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, nearly triple the previous year's allocation of $1.6 million.

        In Washington, meanwhile, U.S. Sens. Mike DeWine and George Voinovich of Ohio want more money to keep the heating assistance program going through the winter. Others want an investigation into why gas prices spiked and a search for ways to keep it from happening again.

        “We think, as a state, we owe consumers an answer that's based on a thorough examination of what's going on,” said Ohio Consumers' Counsel Robert Tongren.

        The consumers' counsel, the statewide advocate for residential utility customers, has asked the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio to find the cause of rising natural gas prices. In Southwest Ohio, the group tracked a 27 percent jump in prices charged by Cincinnati Gas & Electric.

        Mr. Taft is expected to announce a one-time plan to help Ohioans meet what one administration official called “extreme increases in home heating costs.”

        The proposal would cover families of low to modest income, and would cover some families and seniors who make too much money to qualify for federal heating assistance.

        More specific details on cost and who in Ohio would qualify for the aid will be released today.

        Lawmakers, however, may focus on the state taxes consumers pay in their heating bills.

        State Sen. Scott Oelslager, R-Canton, wants to repeal state taxes on homeowners' gas bills through March. The proposal would save about $5 for every $100 spent.

        Sen. Robert Hagan, D-Youngstown, wants to abolish sales taxes on natural gas and propane. Mr. Hagan's plan would cost the state about $54 million a year, while Mr. Oelslager's would cost about $25 million.

        “It's not a tremendous strain on the budget,” Mr. Hagan said. “And it sends a message to the people of this state that we are willing to do our part.”

        Ohioans have filed more than 13,000 requests for federal heating assistance this year than they did at this time last year. With so many requests, Mr. Dewine said, the program won't be able to pay qualified families as much as it should.

        Mr. DeWine, Mr. Voinovich and a group of northern senators are asking for $600 million in additional funds to prop up the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance program.

        “The point is unless more money is put in, there are going to be a lot of people hurting in Ohio,” Mr. DeWine said. “There will be a lot of people making some very tough choices about food versus their fuel bills.”

- Officials seek heat solutions
Taft wants more for seniors and disabled
Education, economy dominate Taft State of the State agenda

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