Kennedy Rails at Plan to Cut Fuel Aid

Joseph P. Kennedy II, president and chairman of Citizens Energy, joined two Massachusetts congressmen and an octogenarian couple yesterday morning at a press conference in East Boston to decry proposed cuts to a federal fuel program that annually serves about 8 million American families.

The event was strategically timed with President Obama headed to Boston to meet with schoolchildren and attend a Democratic fund-raiser. Kennedy, a longtime advocate for the poor who runs his own program to deliver oil from Venezuela to needy families in the region, stood near the Princeton Street home of Katherine, 81, and Joe Oliveri, 84, and made a plea to Washington to at least level-fund the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

“I plead and ask that President Obama and the Republican leaders of Congress find some heart and soul and recognize the terrible impact that these cuts have not on LIHEAP … but on families,” Kennedy said. Turning to the elderly couple, he continued: “It’s the Oliveris, not the LIHEAP program, that’s getting cut. It’s the Oliveris and thousands of families just like them.”

Obama’s federal budgets proposal for fiscal 2012 would slash $2.5 billion from 2010, when the budget for the federal program was $5.1 billion. This winter, Massachusetts has received $181.7 million in federal energy funding from the program.

There were 260,000 applications in the Bay State this year for fuel assistance. It is unknown exactly how much Massachusetts would lose if LIHEAP is cut.

Jay Carney, White House press secretary, said yesterday that Obama understands people are upset about the LIHEAP cut, but it is an example of the tough choices the president has to make to offer a responsible budget. He said Obama supports LIHEAP, but given the pressures on the budget, “we don’t plan to reverse it now.”

When Obama submitted his budget last month, he said he might revisit the cuts to LIHEAP if energy prices were to jump. It was unclear yesterday whether he would make any adjustments in light of the recent increase brought on by the crisis in Libya.

Kennedy, a former Democratic congressman, said that if the budget were passed in its current form, it would be devastating for families like the Oliveris who, this winter, have endured a 20 percent cut in heating aid from last year.

The Oliveris said they stretched oil purchases this year by turning down their thermostat at night running their gas oven during the day. Katherine Oliveri said she also rationed essential medicines to save money to pay for oil.

In response to a question from a reporter about what she would say to Obama if her were listening, she said: “I would him he’s put us in a very bad situation. He bargained with our health, because I need my medications. I can’t do without it, and here I was trying to spread them out because I couldn’t buy them. It was very dangerous, and I was very scared.”

US Representative Michael E. Capuano held up a constituent’s oil bill and a printout from the Social Security Administration to assert that climbing fuel costs challenge retirees’ budgets. The bill, for 139 gallons, was $529. According to the administration, 54 million people receive an average monthly Social Security check of $1,076.

“We all know there’s troubles,” Capuano said. “The Oliveris have to balance their budget, I have to balance mine, and everybody here has to balance yours. But you don’t start with the most basic needs in this country. Heating oil is one of them.”

Kennedy, Capuano, and US Representative Jim McGovern were all careful yesterday not to lambaste Obama but to point to the cuts as a result of November’s election.

“We’re trying to raise our voices so that the president knows that there’s a great deal of concern out there,” McGovern said. “Here in Massachusetts, we’ve had a cold winter, and it’s not over yet, and there are a lot of people who need to get help who can’t get help, and these cuts would just exacerbate the problem.

So we’re trying to get the president’s attention, and hopefully, he’ll reconsider these cuts because it’s the morally right thing to do.” Kennedy said he is not entertaining any ideas of bringing his cause to Washington by running against US Senator Scott Brown. He said he talked with Brown about LIHEAP and the senator assured him that he understands the issue and will support funding the program.

“Listen, there’s two congressmen back here who would do a great job in running against Scott Brown, and I spent 12 years in Washington, D.C.,” Kennedy said. “It was a great experience, a wonderful thing. But I enjoy very much the work that I do and want to continue doing it.”