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Texas' $50 million program to help pay overdue energy bills just shut down

Gabriel C. Pérez

The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs says it's no longer accepting applications to the federally backed program to help struggling Texans amid stifling summer heat.

Texas' $50 million program to help folks pay overdue energy bills may be dead — for now.

After unexpected demand, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs says it's no longer accepting applications from people hoping to pay energy bills through the Texas Utility Help program, which opened on July 7. The program allowed struggling Texans to pay overdue bills or apply the relief to future payments. Its closure comes amid record-breaking heat across the state.

TDHCA is still offering assistance for water and wastewater bills through the program.

"Due to overwhelming interest in the program, we are currently not accepting new applications for energy bill assistance while we process the ones already in the queue," the TDHCA website says. "Applications for water and wastewater utility assistance are still being accepted."

TDHCA did not immediately respond to questions as to whether the process is merely frozen or whether the federal funds had been completely depleted.

The program aimed to assist folks at or below 150% of the federal poverty guidelines — for example, people who make $41,000 in annual income for a four-person household. Qualified applicants could receive relief for past-due bills or up to $2,400 for future gas, propane and electric utility payments.

For water and wastewater, residents can apply still for up to $600 dollars in relief, TDHCA says.

Tim Morstad, associate director of AARP Texas, which first pointed out the program's pause, said the shutdown couldn't have come at a worse time for older Texans on fixed-incomes. Morstad said more than half a million Texans rely solely on roughly $1,300 a month in Social Security payments.

"We're running out at exactly the wrong time, because we're going to have another two months of very high bills based on these high temperatures. Today's utility bill reflects last month's usage," he said. "We're going to be in need for quite a while, and it's really disturbing to know that these funds look like they're drying up now."

Texas has a problematic past with assisting low-income ratepayers. When the state first deregulated its energy market, lawmakers set up a state-backed program to help hundreds of thousands of Texans pay bills that would likely increase as a result of the new, competitive market. State regulators shuttered that embattled program, known as Lite-Up Texas, in 2017.

Absent a more robust state-funded assistance program, Texas has relied on federal dollars to make sure poor Texans can keep the lights on. Morstad said the state's federally backed relief program was bolstered by the American Rescue Plan this year, but it's not enough this summer as record-breaking heat swelters across the state.

"There's only money coming from the federal government," he said. "As we're seeing this year, it's not enough, even with these recovery dollars added into it. We're running out at exactly the wrong time."
Copyright 2022 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Andrew Weber is a freelance reporter and associate editor for KUT News. A graduate of St. Edward's University with a degree in English, Andrew has previously interned with The Texas Tribune, The Austin American-Statesman and KOOP Radio.