If a state lawmaker gets his way, an additional $ 9.5 million in surplus welfare funds will be transferred to a program that helps Oklahomans pay their home heating costs.
Senator Kevin Easley is calling on the Oklahoma Human Services Commission to transfer the balance of its surplus welfare money to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
"With high natural gas prices and unusually cold weather driving utility bills through the roof, a lot of Oklahomans are facing a crisis situation. If we can ease that crisis by accessing all of the available surplus money at our disposal, we should do it. Every dollar makes a difference," said Senator Easley, chairman of the Senate Energy, Environmental Resources and Regulatory Services Committee.
On Tuesday, the Oklahoma Human Services Commission voted to send a portion of its surplus welfare funds - some $4 million - to LIHEAP. Even with that transfer, however, an additional $9.5 million in surplus welfare funds is still available at the Department of Human Services.
The surplus funds accumulated over the last three fiscal years when the DHS didn't spend the entire welfare allocation that it received from the federal government.
"I don't see how we can just sit on that money in good conscience when some senior citizens and working families are having to decide whether to pay their heating bill or buy groceries. If it's possible, I think we should put every dime of that money into the home heating assistance program where it will make an immediate difference in people's lives," said Senator Easley.
Funded by the federal government and administered by the State Department of Human Services, LIHEAP helps needy Oklahomans pay their home heating and cooling bills. The state received approximately $13 million in federal funds for the program this year, but because the demand for assistance has been greater than usual, efforts have been made to supplement LIHEAP with state funding.
According to DHS officials, everyone who applied for program assistance by the mid-January deadline would receive it if the state raised an additional $12 million - something that might be possible, according to Senator Easley, if all surplus welfare funds were transferred for LIHEAP use.
"If the commission agrees to transfer the rest of the welfare funds to LIHEAP, we can come very close to meeting that goal. This won't make the big utility bills go away, but it will help thousands of Oklahoma families who are in a very tough situation," said Senator Easley.