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Poor Texans left in dark as state electricity aid program ends

Low-income Texans are struggling to come to grips with the demise of a longstanding program that helped them pay their electricity bills.

Mary Garcia at her home in Arlington, Texas, on Dec. 22, 2016.

ARLINGTON — North Texas was freezing during a three-day stretch last month, but Mary Garcia refused to turn on the heat in her cramped apartment. She feared that doing so would too quickly drain her pay-as-you-go account with Penstar Power, a Dallas-based electricity provider.

On Dec. 19, with just $15.31 in her account and the outside thermometer showing 27 degrees, Garcia composed a plea to Lite-Up Texas, a state program that had long helped low-income folks pay their electricity bills.

"Please I beg you to bring back this assistance with electricity," she wrote in an email that she inadvertently sent to The Texas Tribune. "I am going to freeze during this cold season."

Garcia is among many poor Texans coming to grips with the loss of support from Lite-Up Texas, which stopped offering its discounts on Aug. 31 because it ran out of money.

About 700,000 households relied on the program in 2015 to cover 25 to 31 percent of their electricity bills, according to the Public Utility Commission. (For some years, Lite-Up Texas only offered subsidies during summer months, but in its earliest years and last year, the help was year-round.)

Lawmakers created the program, funded by electric ratepayers across Texas, in 1999 to help low income folks on the state's newly deregulated electricity market. Texans eligible for food stamps or Medicaid qualified for the discounts.

Lite-Up Texas doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance, even as lawmakers occasionally tapped its funding source — called the System Benefit Fund — to prop up the state's budget.

But in 2013, the Legislature ended the 65-cents-per-megawatt-hour surcharge that fueled the program.

Every dollar counts for Garcia, 59, a former hospital cleaning woman and housekeeper. She depends largely on federal disability payments, which she started receiving after suffering crippling headaches that built up to a brain aneurysm in October 2015.

Sitting in a living room illuminated only by lights strung on a small Christmas tree, she recalled learning that a program she had used for years was over. "I thought to myself, 'How could they do that?'" she said. "This really upset me. It's terrible to say, but I really depended on it."

Garcia wasn't the only one who relied on the program. Ofelia Zapata, of Austin Interfaith and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which each serve low-income Texans, said she's been flooded with calls since September from clients who are worried about losing such help.

That includes Frances Medrano, who lives alone in Weslaco, about 15 miles east of McAllen.

"Those few dollars, whether it be $20, $30, $40, were a big, big help for myself," Medrano said. "I really didn't think the funds were going to run out."

Like Garcia, Medrano, 55, struggles to work and depends on federal disability payments. She has spent years on dialysis and recently had a kidney transplant, she said. Now, she's doing everything she can to limit her Verde Energy bill: keeping the lights off and going without heat on occasional chilly days. When summer hits, she plans to put a box fan in the window.

She has contemplated asking family members for help, but that "would be a last resort," she said. "Your pride gets in there."

Courtney Smith, who directs an elder support program for Senior Source, said her Dallas-based nonprofit answers many calls about utility bill worries, though few are specific to the state program's end. "But if we have a really hot summer or cold winter, it will become an issue," she said.

Some counties and larger competitive utilities offer their own assistance, Smith said, but those resources are limited and sometimes harder for folks to immediately find.

TXU Energy chips in aid that Senior Source helps distribute, Smith added, but the nonprofit is now going through the money more quickly since Lite-Up Texas ended.

Sharon Litke, vice president for operations at Penstar Power, said her company does not provide its own assistance but tries to match customers with area groups that do.

"Certainly, Lite-Up has hit our clients hard, and a lot of our clients have just fallen on bad times," she said, adding that she was worried about this week's cold snap. "Our heart just goes out to them, honestly."

Litke told the Tribune that someone at Penstar would try to connect Garcia with groups that provide utility assistance in Arlington.

Texas Legal Services Center has crafted a bill to restore the state program, and it is looking for a lawmaker to carry it in the coming legislative session, Zapata said. But at a time of stalled revenues and crunched budgets, reigniting Lite-Up Texas looks unlikely.

"This new political landscape — it's going to be cutting everything," Zapata said. "These are basic needs. We're not asking for out-of-the sky stuff."

Read more about electricity costs in Texas

  • Donna Nelson, who chairs the Texas Public Utility Commission, says she's trying to crack down on deceptive electricity providers and make it easier for Texans to shop for electricity.
  • Consumer advocates fear prepaid electricity plans could leave low-income Texans vulnerable to hidden fees and sudden electricity shutoffs. But companies that offer the plans say there is great consumer demand for them.
  • "Politicians shouldn’t mess with churches or farmers, and this is a church full of farmers,” says Janey Burke of Roscoe's Champion Baptist Church, whose congregation can be counted among those outraged by Sharyland Utilities' bills.

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Energy Environment State government Texas Legislature Texas Public Utility Commission