The South Austin Coalition Community Council (SACCC) hosted a press conference March 28 to lobby Congressional lawmakers from cutting federal energy assistance programs that help the poor.

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, is one of the main targets. SACCC has been a facilitator over the years in helping Austin residents secure funds from the program.

“If we can allocate funds to extending the tax-cuts for the rich, we should be able to invest in a program that helps many poor people and seniors every year,” said Elce Redmond, an organizer with SACCC.

SACCC’s press conference took place at the Austin Senior Center, 5071 W. Congress. Redmond said that SACCC has made attempts to reach out to members of Congress about LIHEAP but have not gotten much positive response.

“Congressman [Danny] Davis’ office said there wasn’t much that could be done, and [U.S. Senator] Mark Kirk has yet to respond to our calls,” Redmond said.

Davis and Kirk were unavailable to speak with Austin Weekly News for this story.

Congress is currently debating its FY2011 budget, and thus far only $4.2 billion has been approved for the states-$3.9 billion in regular funding and $300 million in contingency money for LIHEAP), which is a drop-off of about $1 billion over last year’s funding for the program.

House Republicans want to cut at least $300 million from LIHEAP’s emergency fund as part of their proposal to cut tens of billions of dollars in federal spending during the current fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. The program’s critics argue that it is likened to a “welfare” program, and it makes recipients expect the government to help them play their bills.

Redmond, however, insists programs like LIHEAP are an “investment” in the economy that benefits everyone.

“If a single mother is having to spend all of her resources toward paying her winter gas bill, she will be less inclined to spend on other things like consumer goods, which hurt small businesses,” he said. “This program offers qualified applicants help ensuring that they keep their utilities on. The recipient benefits, the power company benefits and businesses benefit from the program.”

According to the American Gas Association, an organization that represents nearly 200 U.S. energy companies, approximately 9 million people receive LIHEAP vouchers annually. Of those people, 3 million would be unable to receive help unless the program stays at its current level of funding.