The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 27, 2014

Emergency heating bill could get to Dayton sooner

House and Senate pass $20 million bill

BRIAN BAKST
Associated Press

---- — ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A sudden vote Thursday left a bill containing $20 million in emergency heating assistance one step from Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, who could have it on his desk by day's end.

The Senate voted 65-0 to send a revised measure back to the House. The vote was sped up from planned Monday action after Republicans sought to move it along quicker. House members voted unanimously Tuesday for the extra aid and they will consider whether to accept a slight Senate revision or seek further negotiations.

The bill replenishes a fast-eroding account for the low income heating assistance program, which has been stressed by a bone-chilling winter and high propane costs. As propane supplies ran thin, some customers paid as much as $6 per gallon this winter, though they have come down more recently.

"There's a crisis going on in rural Minnesota," said Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake. "This is a start of dealing with this crisis."

Minnesota is in the latest run of miserable weather, with temperatures Thursday struggling to hit zero and winds making it seem far colder. There have been few above-freezing days since the start of the year.

The Senate version differs from a House bill by capping administrative costs at 5 percent.

That didn't sit well with Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont. She said the community-based offices that process aid requests have been overburdened already and can't turn applications around quickly enough as it is.

But Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said limiting the amount spent on bureaucracy will free up "$1 million more to put in people's propane tanks."

The Minnesota Department of Commerce estimates that for each $1 million the program can serve 4,000 households.