OP-ED | The Topsy-turvy Politics Of An Election Year


2022 was a year to remember when it comes to energy costs. Rising gas prices dominated both politics and wallets earlier this summer, heralding a similarly expensive heating season in the winter. While oil and natural gas prices have fallen significantly since their peak, the cost of both is still much higher than at this time last year due to the impact of the war in Ukraine on energy prices combined with peak inflation decades. To make matters worse, The Farmer’s Almanac predicts a cold, snowy fall and winter.

All this formed the background when I saw the headline, “Republicans begin filing petitions to force a special session on energy assistance.” I was willing to smack the state GOP for being heartless enough to try to cut power just before winter set in. But then something unexpected happened: I actually read the article. I was shocked to find that Republicans not only backed the Low Income Household Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), but also called for an increase in funding.

Both Democrats and Republicans agree that the program needs more money. But the actual increase in funding appears to reverse the traditional roles played by the parties.

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The difference is how the parties think it should be funded. Republicans are calling for a special session of the Legislature to propose that $120 million be transferred from other state programs to the LIHEAP fund. Democrats have opposed this plan, instead suggesting that the federal government could provide additional funding later in the year (both Connecticut U.S. Senators and Rep. Joe Courtney signed a letter demanding more money from Congress) .

The LIHEAP appears to be some sort of no-brainer program that both parties would be willing to support through compromises. LIHEAP began in 1981 to help low-income families afford heating and cooling bills and to avoid the “heat or eat” dilemma that working professionals and those on a fixed income often encounter. During the pandemic, funding for the program increased dramatically in response to millions of Americans losing their jobs. That additional funding is scheduled to expire, reducing the state’s annual allocation from $140 million last year to $79 million this year.

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I understand that both parties have political motives when considering how best to fund LIHEAP. Republicans are trying to hammer home the idea that Lamont and his allies have made life in Connecticut too expensive, and the handover of “emergency” funds to keep families warm plays into that message. On the other hand, Democrats have made the argument that under their leadership the state is in its best fiscal position in years and that there is no need to spend state money when federal dollars are pouring in.

What is particularly interesting about this political dispute is how the parties have reversed the traditional roles we associate them with. The Republicans have been known for years as the party of fiscal responsibility, more intent on cutting social programs than collecting signatures to expand them. Democrats have typically advocated spending more to expand the social safety net, rather than focusing on budget surpluses. The situation shows that the governing philosophy of the two major parties can change when the political wind blows in a new direction.

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While the fight for LIHEAP funding is most likely a one-off fight in an election year, it shows how parties change over time. People often wonder how the Lincoln and Emancipation party came to oppose almost every major civil rights statute in the 20th century. It was the result of many tiny turning points like this, where political orthodoxy was suddenly turned on its head for electoral purposes. The same thing happened when the Democrats, who had passed the Great Society social program expansion a generation earlier, then passed welfare reform in the 1990s.

Hopefully LIHEAP gets the money it needs to ensure Connecticut families get the help they need to stay warm this winter. This can pass as simply a cynical game of chickens in a contentious election year, or we can look back on this as one of those pivotal moments when politics shifted and a new status quo was established. Only time can tell.

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