mailbagTime, now, to take questions from the TCAP mailbag. A reader asks: “Is it true that the state will soon discontinue its bill assistance program for low-income Texans? And if so, are there low-income programs that can take its place?”

The short answers are maybe and maybe.

But before digging into all the details, let’s first consider the back story.

The program you’re referring to is called LITE-UP. It was created as part of the 1999 electric deregulation law and is available only to Texans living in areas of the state with deregulation. The assistance program has been funded through a small assessment on all electric bills.

But financing for LITE-UP was never secure. Although money has been collected for many years for the stated purpose of helping low-income Texans, the Texas Legislature instead used much of it to balance the state budget.  It wasn’t that lawmakers actually spent the funds. Rather, they employed LITE-UP money in an accounting trick that allowed them to allocate extra dollars elsewhere.  As a consequence, the low-income discount has been reduced over the years while millions of LITE-UP dollars piled up, unspent.

Lawmakers took a different tact in 2013 when they voted both to expend all remaining LITE-UP dollars for their intended purpose, and then afterwards to discontinue the discount program altogether. In order to draw down the LITE-UP funds quickly lawmakers authorized massive bill discounts — as high as 82 percent. And then after 2015 the discounts are supposed to end.

And that brings us, more or less, to where we are now. The current twist is that the LITE-UP fund, which was supposed to have been nearly exhausted by now, will still have quite a bit of money left in it when the Legislature reconvenes in 2015. According to current calculations, there will be $197 million left unspent during the upcoming two-year budget cycle.

So, as to your first question: Is it true that that the state will soon discontinue the program?

As I noted above, the short answer is: maybe.

The Texas Public Utility Commission has requested Legislative authority to spend the remaining $197 million on more discounts during 2016 and 2017. The discounts would amount to about 30 percent, and would be available for electric bills issued between May and September. Texans at or below 125 percent of the poverty line would be eligible, as well as Texans receiving assistance through Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  After 2017, though, LITE-UP would be finished for good.

But it remains unclear whether the Texas Legislature will grant the two-year extension. If it does not, then yes — the program soon will be discontinued.

As for your second question — are there low-income discount programs that can take its place? — again, the answer is a qualified maybe. In the past some retail electric providers have offered discount programs on their own. But these programs come and go, so you need to inquire directly with your electric retailer. In addition, some faith-based programs offer utility bill assistance. A good way to get connected is by calling 211.  Another good resource is the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. You can find online links to utility bill assistance programs in your area by clicking here.

You can find out more at the PUC website, at this link.

And that’s our mailbag visit for the month. Thanks for writing!
— R.A. Dyer

What is the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power?

TCAP is a coalition of more than 160 cities and other political subdivisions that purchase electricity in the deregulated market for their own governmental use. Because high energy costs can impact municipal budgets and the ability to fund essential services, TCAP, as part of its mission, actively promotes affordable energy policies. High energy prices also place a burden on local businesses and home consumers.