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Blunt approves extra money for Utilicare

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By AP/KWMU

Jefferson City, MO – Governor Matt Blunt Thursday signed legislation that will add $6.1 million more to the program that helps low-income Missourians pay heating costs.

The state has been using $38 million in federal money to help people pay heating bills. That's part of the $52.5 million that Missouri gets from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance program. But higher natural gas prices this year have meant more applications for aid and a fear the money might run out.

The bill to add money to the Utilicare program passed the House last week and the Senate Thursday. Blunt signed it soon after. It was the first bill that passed the Legislature this spring session.

The money approved Thursday will supplement the federal dollars through the state's own energy assistance program, called Utilicare. The funding marks the first time since 2001 that Utilicare has received any money, and the $6.1 million appropriation is the largest allowed under state law for the program.

Gov. Matt Blunt proposed the spending as an emergency addition to the state's budget, and the bill was the first passed by the Legislature, which began its annual session Jan. 4.

"I commend the Missouri General Assembly for answering my call and quickly passing this emergency supplemental bill," Blunt said in a written statement Thursday.

Not a single House or Senate member voted against the bill, which passed the Senate in a matter of minutes without debate. Last week, the House suspended its rules to speed up passage of the bill.

House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, said the goal is to make the money available to people who need help paying their January heating bills.

The energy assistance is available to people earning up to 125% of the federal poverty level (about $12,000 a year for an individual or about $24,000 for a family of four). People having trouble paying their heating bills can receive one-time grants, which vary in amount depending on the family's size, income and heating fuel source. Those whose service has been disconnected or who have received shut off notices also are eligible for up to $600 in emergency aid.

Some of the state's 19 community action agencies that distribute the money already have obligated their entire share of the federal dollars, said Elaine West, executive director of the Missouri Association for Community Action. The state money will allow those agencies to help more people, she said.

"We are pleased they acted so quickly," West said. "It will mean a lot to a lot of households in Missouri."

With the additional money, the Department of Social Services said about 139,000 Missourians could receive energy aid this winter, compared with 113,162 last winter and about 104,000 each the two previous winters.

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