ST PAUL — As health officials warn of the impending arrival of coronavirus in the United States, the White House is proposing federal funds be diverted to emergency planning — tens of millions of which would come from a federal program subsidizing heating bills for low-income households.
According to a memo obtained by Forum News Service on Wednesday, Feb. 26, the Trump administration has proposed to lawmakers that approximately $37 million be diverted from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, to prepare for an outbreak of the respiratory illness.
Other preparation funds would come from the Administration for Children & Families and National Institutes of Health budgets, among others, per the memo. The $37 million cut from LIHEAP is the largest slice to a singular program proposed.
According to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, over 315,000 Minnesotans received $116 million in LIHEAP benefits in fiscal year 2019.
Minnesota's Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith condemned the proposal Wednesday, saying that the Trump administration has proposed cutting the program in the past and "now they are trying to transfer tens of millions of dollars from LIHEAP to address the spread of the coronavirus."
"A core Minnesota value is that we care for our neighbors and help our communities," Smith said in a statement. "Temperatures across the state will be well below freezing tonight. (...) We need to continue funding a program that people in Minnesota and across the country rely on while also providing the funding needed to help fight coronavirus.”
In nearby North Dakota, Republican U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer said in a Wednesday written statement that the administration is "exercising an abundance of caution as they proactively combat the virus while also keeping the public informed and prepared."
“It is unfortunate some members of Congress are using the coronavirus as a new way to baselessly attack President Trump," he continued. "Protecting the health of the American public should be an issue that unites us, not a time for more petty political games.”
A spokesperson for fellow North Dakota Republican U.S. Sen. John Hoeven said in a Wednesday emailed statement that Hoeven's office is "supportive of providing adequate funding to address coronavirus, but I don’t think it will include taking funding from LIHEAP.”
Smith, along with fellow Minnesota Democrat U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, have in previous years fought proposals to cut LIHEAP from the fiscal year 2019 proposal. In a February 2018 joint letter, the senators wrote that "The importance of LIHEAP cannot be understated – especially in places like Minnesota that experience bitterly cold temperatures and lengthy winters."
A spokesperson for South Dakota's Republican U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson said that as of Wednesday afternoon, they were not aware of the proposal. Spokespeople for South Dakota's U.S. Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds, as well as North Dakota's U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, all Republicans, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Federal health officials are warning that it's not a matter of if coronavirus will spread in the United States — but when. The respiratory illness has infected tens of thousands in China, where it originated, and killed 2,700. There are currently 59 confirmed cases in the U.S.