Washington (AP) - The Obama administration on Thursday released $311 million to states to help poor families struggling to pay high home energy bills.
"Many families are burdened with making difficult financial decisions when it comes to their home energy needs," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement announcing the move.
Officials said that the new money for the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program brings the total to $4.2 billion for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. The program provides heating and cooling subsidies for the poor.
The release came as the White House and congressional leaders negotiated over spending cuts to avoid a looming partial shutdown of the federal government. The new money was included in the stopgap budget bill that runs out at midnight Friday.
Home heating aid advocates said that many poor families have been hard hit this year's colder than normal winter and by rising fuel prices, particularly in the Northeast, where people depend more on heating oil.
Mark Wolfe of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association said much of the new money will go to states in the West and South because the Northeast and many colder weather states had already gotten the brunt of their funding.
The association is made up of state officials who administer LIHEAP.
NEADA has said the average cost of heating a home in New England with oil will be about $2,983 this winter, nearly $650 more than last year. High unemployment and colder-than-average winter temperatures have worsened the problem for poor families this winter, Wolfe said.
Wolfe and other home heating aid advocates have asked the Obama administration to release more emergency money for the program.
The administration is expected to release $50 million more in emergency funds by Sept. 30. In January, the government gave out $200 million of the emergency money.
Record federal deficits have increased pressure on both parties to seek budget cuts, making it harder than usual for the White House and Congress to bless additional spending.
The program is expected to help a record 8.9 million households for the current fiscal year, Wolfe said.