DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A legislative panel approved a bill Monday to provide extra money for low-income families struggling to pay their utility bills.
The subcommittee voted two-to-one to supplement federal funds, with the two Democrats in favor and the one Republican opposed. The bill now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The legislation emerged amid a propane shortage and resulting price spike, which has left many Iowans unable to pay heating bills.
The bill would appropriate $2 million to Iowa's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which gives grants to low-income people to assist with energy costs. The federal government funds the program, but states can supplement the effort.
Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Cedar Rapids, said the additional money will address emergency situations across the state, from fixing broken furnaces to carrying out emergency fuel deliveries for families in need.
"These are the people who have asked us to help them, and we need to address their needs," she said.
Iowa was granted about $54 million to fund the program's efforts for the 2014 fiscal year, which ends June 30. As of December, more than 60,000 households received assistance through this program.
Iowa's Department of Human Rights, which oversees the program, had not put in a request for additional funds as of Monday, said agency spokeswoman Danielle Plogmann.
She said there has been an increased need for funding with the extreme cold and propane shortage, but officials are waiting to receive January numbers to determine how much was spent before seeking state funds.
During a news conference Monday, Gov. Terry Branstad said providing funding could be premature.
"We want to be very careful," he said. "We want to utilize limited resources effectively as possible."
Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, echoed these sentiments during the hearing and declined to immediately back the measure.
He said propane prices might drop in coming weeks, meaning less state money would be needed.
"I'm not saying we shouldn't appropriate money," Guth said. "I'm just saying we wait to see the extent of the need."
Mathis, however, said the funding is needed for more than propane, and she's worried that the longer the Legislature waits, the worse the situation will be.
"If we wait, it's just going to add to other issues," she said.