Groups urge state to help poor with heating costs

ATLANTA - The state should steer additional tax revenue generated by higher home-heating prices toward poor people instead of spreading it out as across-the-board tax relief, consumer advocates said Monday.

Representatives of several nonprofit groups spoke out after the Senate gave final passage to a bill temporarily reducing Georgia's sales tax on natural gas and liquid propane from 4 percent to 2 percent.

The legislation, the state's response to a sudden increase in heating prices this winter, is expected to reduce customers' bills statewide by $16 million to

$20 million.

But the bill's critics said that amount would save individual customers only $4 to $5 per month.

That money could be put to better use beefing up the state's share of the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, said Alan Essig, director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

He said $16 million to $20 million - added to what the state and federal governments already are spending on energy assistance to low-income Georgians - would be enough to serve 200,000 low-income households.

Last winter, just more than half that many households in Georgia received energy aid.

"They're overwhelmingly elderly and disabled ... some of the most vulnerable populations,'' Essig said.

Cas Robinson, president of AARP Georgia, said low-income Americans need more help with their energy bills because they spend a disproportionately large percentage of their incomes on heat, 13 percent compared to just 5 percent by the average American family.

When heating prices go up suddenly, low-income customers often must choose between buying the medicines they need and paying their heating bills, he said.

"(They) are forced to make unsafe and unhealthy choices just to keep the heat on,'' he said.

But Gov. Sonny Perdue said across-the-board tax relief makes sense because all Georgians are being hit with higher heating costs.

"The people who consume pay the taxes,'' he said.

At the same time, Perdue spokeswoman Heather Hedrick noted that the governor is stepping up the state's commitment to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Perdue's midyear budget proposal earmarks $4.1 million in home-energy assistance, the first time the state has provided general fund money to LIHEAP.

Hedrick said those funds - combined with $6 million from the state Public Service Commission and $17.9 million from the feds - would be enough to serve every Georgian enrolled in the program last year and eliminate a waiting list of 25,000.

Perdue also is seeking $200,000 in the midyear budget to develop the state's first energy conservation plan.

Jill Johnson, an advocate for the Georgia Public Interest Research Group, said that plan must include a public education component, promotion of energy-efficient buildings and home appliances, tax incentives to encourage businesses and homeowners to buy energy-efficient products and an aggressive push to develop renewable sources of energy.

"There is no reason, with the talent and leadership we have ... that we can't come up with an energy policy in this state,'' added Rep. Douglas Dean, D-Atlanta.