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For some, gas bill aid falls short

Five years ago, state lawmakers hailed the deregulation of natural gas as a surefire way to bring Georgia households some relief. After all, the logic that a competitive market would drive down costs and improve service seemed sound.

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But the logic was flawed.

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"Overall, the retail prices for residential and small-business customers are higher" than before deregulation, says Bobby Baker, head of the Georgia Public Service Commission.

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According to the commission, the average gas bill last month on a fixed-rate plan totaled $228. The average bill in January 1999, prior to deregulation, was $94.

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With natural gas prices soaring, in part due to shortages following Hurricane Katrina, many people have resorted to layering sweaters or burying themselves under blankets rather than adjusting their thermostats.

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But Katrina isn't only to blame. According to Baker, once the natural gas market was deregulated, competition didn't bring down the prices. Instead, the market became more susceptible to gas price fluctuations because the state no longer regulated those prices.

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Georgia Watch, a consumer watchdog group, is working to help families affected by the surge in natural gas prices. Executive Director Allie Wall says she's trying to find relief for an Atlanta woman living alone with her 5-year-old daughter; the woman couldn't afford to turn on her heat because of a $100 deposit fee the gas company required.

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What's more, the woman couldn't apply for federal aid because she didn't have a gas bill in her name and therefore couldn't prove a legitimate need for assistance.

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In late December, Wall helped the woman enroll in the Public Service Commission's Provider of Last Resort program, which helps those who've unsuccessfully tried to get natural gas from marketers. The commission is working to get the woman's $100 deposit broken into two payments, Wall says.

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But not everyone is as fortunate. What's more, the assistance Wall was able to find does nothing to offset the actual price of gas.

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The challenge is that many families can't afford upwards of $200 per month for their gas bill and therefore must rely on charity — or go without heat.

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"So many other families could be helped if state funds were used," Wall says. "Private donations aren't enough."

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This winter, approximately 50,000 Georgians do not have heat. While federally funded heating assistance like the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program helped 100,000 Georgia households last year, four times that number are eligible for assistance.

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Last week, the state Legislature passed a bill allowing temporary relief from natural gas taxes. But critics argue that, rather than a tax break that would save the average consumer $18, the state gas tax should remain in place --and its revnue instead should be used to supplement federal programs that would help a greater number of low-income consumers.

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"Sales tax on heating bills is not breaking the bank for Georgia families," Wall says. "The high cost of gas is. Why not redirect the tax revenue to assist those in need?"

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Currently, LIHEAP gives an average of $239 in assistance per household in Georgia. But in Maryland, where $8 million in state money supplements federal assistance, each eligible household receives an average $430.

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Traditionally, the state of Georgia has given no funding to LIHEAP.

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On Jan. 11, however, Gov. Sonny Perdue asked that $4.5 million in state funds be used to supplement LIHEAP for the upcoming year.

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And Baker adds that the Public Service Commission gave LIHEAP $6 million this year for assistance.

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While the revenue from the gas tax would be nearly twice that much, $10 million is better than nothing, Baker says.

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"Some folks are saying that's not enough," he says. "But it's more than we've ever contributed in the past."




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