Illinois governor announces 2 programs to assist residents with high utility bills, food insecurity

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Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker announced plans on Tuesday to provide relief to Illinois residents dealing with food insecurity and high utility bills after last week’s arctic blast.

Speaking at the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, Pritzker announced the Illinois Finance Authority would be finalizing $15 million of low interest loans on Thursday to help municipalities that saw natural gas prices skyrocket as a result of extreme winter weather in Texas so they don’t have to burden residents with massive utility bills. 

“These aren’t problems anyone should have to tackle. The state of Illinois will not leave our people out in the cold,” Pritzker said.

Rural towns along a natural gas line that runs through central Illinois between Texas and the Great Lakes saw prices of natural gas soar as natural gas wells froze and the demand for energy couldn’t keep up.

Natural gas usually costs around $3 per dekatherm, the unit of energy that measures natural gas. However, prices jumped upward of $300 per dekatherm last week.

In Franklin, natural gas costs in February are predicted to be two and a half times the cost they budgeted for the entire year. Riverton spent over $700,000 on natural gas just last week when it normally spends about $900,000 in a year. Costs in Pleasant Hill are up 100 times their normal cost and Pittsfield spent $1.4 million on natural gas in one week.

"To put the severity of this crisis in perspective, the egregious level of natural gas prices would be similar to a gallon of gasoline rising from the current $2.89 per gallon to $289 per gallon,” said Heather Viele, general manager of the Interstate Municipal Gas Agency.

Roodhouse Mayor Tom Martin said his small town south of Jacksonville is self-sufficient and has been on non-profit gas for the last century. He bought 75% of the town’s February 2021 natural gas in 2017 for $3.75 per dekatherm, but still ended up paying $470,000 for natural gas this month, which he said his residents can’t afford.

“It’s coming at the worst possible time,” said state Sen. Steve McClure, R-Springfield. “We’re dealing with COVID, we’re dealing with these extreme cold temperatures in the last couple of weeks and it’s been brutal.”

Last week, Pritzker made a statewide disaster declaration in response to the extreme cold and rising natural gas prices, which McClure said was key to helping get assistance to communities quickly before utility bills are given out to customers. Pritzker said the loan was the fastest way they could help communities deal with the problem now as opposed to waiting for federal assistance.

Pawnee Mayor Jeff Clarke, left, thanks Gov. JB Pritzker for the state's quick action in helping local municipalities deal with the skyrocketing costs of natural gas as the governor announced a low-interest loan program to help Illinois communities with utility costs during a press conference at the Illinois Emergency Management Agency in Springfield on Tuesday. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Pawnee Mayor Jeff Clark said he spoke with Pritzker right away about the problem and the loan towns will be receiving will allow them to spread the cost out to residents over a longer period of time so residents aren’t paying for the entire cost at once. Clark said this especially helps his elderly residents who are on fixed income.

State Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, said Texas’ electrical company, ERCOT, must be held accountable for price gouging in Texas and the costs that were passed up the line to communities in other states.

“Our position has to be to strongly urge the government elected officials in Texas to hold ERCOT’s feet to the fire, but this is absolutely unacceptable,” Scherer said.

Pritzker said he supports Democratic Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith’s call for a federal investigation into price gouging. He said the natural gas crisis is a national problem and other states in the Midwest have seen prices increase as well.

“I’d like to see the effects of that investigation. It’ll tell us a lot about what may need to happen in the future,” Pritzker said.  

The governor and other officials are still calling on the federal government to provide aid to Illinois communities that dealt with massive natural gas costs. The loans the state is providing these communities will be paid over a yet to be determined period — likely a couple of years. However, any federal aid the state receives would first go toward helping communities pay back the loan.

Illinois Department of Human Services Secretary Grace B. Hou holds up the new P-EBT card that families will receive per eligible child during a press conference with Gov. JB Pritzker at George Washington Middle School in Springfield on Tuesday. The new P-EBT cards are part of an expansion of a monthly food benefits program that will help approximately one million children across Illinois. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Pritzker also announced expanded access to food assistance through the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer program that will cover 200,000 more children in Illinois schools. The announcement came during a press conference at George Washington Middle School in Springfield.

Illinois was one of just 16 states in the country to be enrolled in the $750 million program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“I really hope that the people can understand how lucky that we are to get this money from the federal government,” said Scherer.

The program reached 764,00 children last year.

“A child whose family is food insecure has tremendous difficulty focusing on school compared to her classmates who don’t go to school hungry. A mother who always puts herself second when there’s only enough food for her child will never be able to function as her whole self,” Pritzker said.

Eligible families don’t need to apply under the expanded program. Beginning on March 8, families will receive a card in the mail to the address they have on file through their child’s school. The card can be used at most major grocery stores to purchase food. One card will be issued for each child, so families with more than one child will receive multiple cards.

One million kids in total will be covered under the expanded program, which provides food access to kids who are attending school from home and would have received free or reduced cost meals at school.

Contact Ben Szalinski bszalinski@gannett.com

via The State Journal-Register

February 23, 2021 at 04:30PM

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