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Following extreme heat, FL gets $106 million from feds to help families pay energy bills

Noting record-breaking heat that spread across Florida and other parts of the country this summer, relief is coming for working Floridians and low-income families.

Households will be getting financial help to pay their energy bills — both cooling bills in summer and heating costs this winter — according to an announcement this week by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service (HHS). The federal agency says it is distributing nearly $3.7 billion nationwide, with Florida receiving $106 million.

The money comes from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) which provides financial assistance to energy bills to those who are eligible.

“Florida families should never have to choose between living in extreme heat or putting food on the table, but that’s exactly the choice too many working people are facing in our state,” Orlando area Democratic Congressman Maxwell Frost said in a statement. “The money can also help folks, especially seniors, weatherproof their homes to make them more energy efficient, and mitigate energy emergencies during disasters and extreme weather like hurricanes and heat waves.”

Frost was one of three Florida House Democrats who joined more than 20 other members of Congress to write to the chair and ranking member of the House Committee on Appropriations in July calling on lawmakers to pass an emergency supplemental funding package for the LIHEAP program. South Florida Democrats Jared Moskowitz and Frederica Wilson also signed on to the letter.

“Without assistance from LIHEAP, many vulnerable individuals and families impacted by heat waves may miss utility payments, which leads to financial strain and even having their power disconnected. In 2022, at least 3 million customers were disconnected from power due to a missed payment, with 30 percent of these disconnections taking place during the summer. Less than half of states in the U.S. have protections for customers facing utility disconnections during high heat, leaving millions of Americans in dangerous conditions,” the letter stated.

U.S. Rep. Wilson wrote in a statement: “LIHEAP funding has been a lifeline for South Florida families, ensuring all our residents feel safe and can escape scorching temperature, especially during scorching heatwaves that seem to get hotter and last longer every year.”

As a way to provide protections for individuals who work in Florida’s intense heat and humidity, a bipartisan bill was proposed in the 2023 Florida legislative session that would have required farmers, construction companies and landscapers who employ outdoor workers to educate them about heat illness.

Employers would also be asked to provide workers with adequate drinking water, access to shade and 10-minute recovery breaks in extreme heat (defined as 80 degrees or higher). It never received a hearing.

Meanwhile this summer, Tampa Bay area Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor was livid that Gov. Ron DeSantis turned down $354 million for energy-efficient measures provided through federal legislation signed into law by President Joe Biden.

Among the $511 million in projects that DeSantis vetoed in the 2023-24 state budget at the end of June was a $5 million line-item provided through the Inflation Reduction Act that would have allowed the state to train staff to administer federal funds totaling $354 million to address energy efficiency in Florida.

By Mitch Perry, Florida Phoenix