Thousands of low-income Texans this year will be eligible for discounts that could shave hundreds from their monthly electricity bills beginning in September, but the program that makes those savings possible will soon be ending.
State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, at a press conference Thursday, urged low-income Texans to apply to the program, known as LITE-UP Texas, before Aug. 10, the deadline to receive assistance for September. Customers will also be eligible to receive discounts on their bills during May through August of 2014.
The program is a result of the System Benefit Fund, which Turner has long championed. It was created in 1999 to help needy Texans pay their electric bills during the hot summer months when rates are often higher. But the program has not always worked as lawmakers envisioned, and the discounts have varied from year to year. Some years, there has been no discount.
Citizens and businesses for years have paid a fee on their electricity bill to finance the fund, which currently has a balance of more than $800 million. The discount does not apply to all major cities in Texas — notably Austin and San Antonio are excluded — but it does apply to Houston, Dallas, South Texas and other areas.
Turner said not having electricity can make it harder for children to study and can be dangerous.
“I used to be in this population of those who are low income,” Turner said. “I know how high the electricity bills can be when you have limited dollars coming in. I’ve experienced the electricity being cut off.”
People who receive Texas Medicaid or food stamps are automatically enrolled, but Texans who bring in a salary at or below 125 percent below the federal poverty level also qualify.
The Legislature made significant changes to the program this year, increasing the electricity discount from 16.5 percent to 82 percent. However, it also voted to stop making customers pay a surcharge and to phase out the program by 2016, which is why the discounts this year are so large.
Turner fought fiercely for the program during the regular session, at one point even stalling budget negotiations when Republicans suggested giving money in the fund back to customers instead of to low-income Texans.
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, supported the bill in the Senate and said if he and Turner had their way, they would have continued the System Benefit Fund beyond 2016.
“There are some people who thought it didn’t make sense to let this money go to where it was intended to go,” Ellis said. “They wanted to divert it anywhere other than to the pockets of working-class Texans who need it, who deserve it.”
Mari Okabayashi, the secretary for the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature, a nonprofit organization that advocates for legislation relating to senior welfare, said having electricity is crucial for elderly Texans, who can get dehydrated more quickly in hot conditions.
“We believe that one death because of lack of electricity or cooling in the heat of the summer is one death too many,” Okabayashi said.