The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

February 27, 2014

Legislature sends heating aid bill to Dayton

ST. PAUL (AP) — The Legislature on Thursday sent Gov. Mark Dayton a bill containing $20 million in emergency heating assistance, which his spokesman said the governor would sign immediately.

Lawmakers, in a series of unanimous votes, moved the heating aid quickly through the process in the opening days of the legislative session. The House initially passed the bill Tuesday. The Senate took it up Thursday, made minor changes and sent it back to the House, which relayed it to the governor.

The Senate sped up a planned Monday vote after Republicans sought to move it along quicker and Democrats did not object.

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 prices 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." And the House signed on to the Senate's changes.

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

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