Legislation will help poor pay power bills

NEW HAMPSHIRE - Disabled and newly widowed, Irene Pingree says assistance in paying her electric bill under a soon-to-be expanded state program can't come soon enough.

Governor John Lynch and legislative leaders announced they will rush legislation through early next year to get discounts on electric bills for low-income electric customers.

About 7,500 people are on a wait list for help through New Hampshire's electric assistance program. The program provides discounts ranging from 5 to 70 percent to poor residents, depending on household size and income.

Electric customers already pay into programs for electric assistance and energy efficiency. The legislation would reduce the money going to energy efficiency and increase the amount to electric assistance for the next two years. Electric customers won't notice any changes in their bills.

Pingree, 56, of Concord hopes to put her savings toward things like toilet paper and anything that can't be purchased with food stamps.

Before her husband died last month, Pingree qualified for a 33 percent discount, which would decrease her pay according to the Belknap-Merrimack Community Action Program. With her household income reduced by her husband's death, she may qualify for more help, the agency said.

Florence Roy, 92, of Pembroke is one of the lucky ones who already gets a discount. She has been getting one-third of her light bill paid for some time, she said. Last month, she saved $13.17. She uses the extra money to buy groceries.

The electric assistance and energy efficiency programs raise about $35 million annually. The legislation would earmark $19 million — or about $3.5 million more — to help people like Pingree. Over the last year, about 29,000 families received assistance, said Public Utilities Commission Chairman Tom Getz.

Lynch noted that there are other energy efficiency programs besides the one electric customers fund.

House Science, Technology and Energy Chairwoman Naida Kaen has steadfastly backed energy efficiency programs, but said she signed on as a sponsor of the legislation because too many people need short-term help with electric bills.

"I think there are enough energy efficiency funds now given all we're getting from the federal government," said Kaen, a Lee Democrat.

Lynch and legislative leaders promised to act quickly on the bill. If both parties agree to suspend rules, it could reach Lynch's desk in February or perhaps sooner.


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