Heat or eat 

With winter a month away and growing concerns over unpredictable energy prices, many low-income Montana families may again be faced with the oft-recurring choice between heating and eating.

In years past, low-income Montanans have relied heavily on safety nets like Energy Share of Montana, a private non-profit organization that uses the Universal Systems Benefits (USB) program to help Montanans pay for energy. This winter, Energy Share will have to stretch its USB funding to offset the effects of disappearing safety nets and a bad economy. But next year, there may not be any USB money to stretch.

“[The loss of the USB funding] would be disastrous for the people that we’re helping,” says Energy Share executive director Gregg Groepper. “There would be, conservatively, $300,000 dollars less to help people that are facing power shutoffs.”

Started in 1997 as way to defray possible deregulation impacts and help low-income consumers buy power, the USB program requires Montana energy consumers to pay a 2.4 percent surcharge devoted to bill assistance and alternative energy research. The bulk of Energy Share’s budget, almost $400,000, comes directly from USB.

But when voters decided to reject Initiative 117, thereby throwing out House Bill 474, a three-year extension of USB got tossed out with it. USB is now scheduled to sunset in July 2003. Without the program, most of the 2000-plus Montana households helped by Energy Share could be left out in the cold. Now it’s up to the legislature to figure out how to keep USB going.

Rep. Dave Wanzenried (D-Missoula), who contributed to the effort to dump House Bill 474, says state lawmakers know how valuable the program is and are smart enough to work out a way to keep it afloat.

“I’m telling you that the reason this [USB] is important to keep is because the chance of us having power rates this low now that we are exposed to market prices is pretty slim,” he says.

Wanzenried plans to introduce a bill next session that would extend the program indefinitely, ensuring that, even with increasing energy costs, the poorest Montanans will have a permanent safety net.

But Wanzenried’s bill isn’t a slam-dunk. USB was just one aspect of the hodgepodge House Bill 474. There are likely to be people across the table from Wanzenried negotiating to reinstate other aspects of the rejected bill, like bond issues for more power plants, or allowing electricity suppliers to recover “prudently incurred” costs. If these elements are lumped in with USB again, they could be tossed out together again.

“I don’t know what will happen,” says Wanzenried. “But I’m sure we will at least get a patch job in place for USB for the next couple years.”

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