HARTFORD, Conn. — A new report released Thursday shows that the gap between what lower income households in Connecticut pay for their energy bills and what they can actually afford is widening — a problem that could get worse if Congress approves proposed cuts in federal aid.

The study commissioned by Operation Fuel, a statewide fuel assistance program, determined the gap comes to $505 million, or nearly $2,200 per household — mainly low-income families and elderly residents on fixed incomes. The figure represents how much actual home energy bills exceed what's affordable for those households.

In 2010, the gap was about $480 million, or about $2,000 per household.

"The affordability gap in Connecticut is tremendous. It's crushing and it's getting bigger," said Roger Colton, an economist who conducted the annual study.

The growing affordability problem comes as states wait to find out how much money they will receive from the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The Obama administration has proposed cutting the program in half, to about $2.5 billion nationwide. A spending bill in the U.S. House calls for cutting spending to $3.4 billion; the Senate is proposing a $3.6 billion figure.

The program began Oct. 1 and the government has given an initial round of funding, $1.7 billion, to the states.

Under the president's proposal, Connecticut would get less than $50 million in aid for this winter, after having spent more than $115 million in aid last winter.

Benjamin Barnes, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's budget director, said the state currently has no plan to spend its own money to make up for any decrease in federal heating aid, but that could change if the governor and state legislators somehow find extra dollars in the already tight state budget.

The state has committed $1 million to Operation Fuel, which helps people who do not qualify for LIHEAP assistance or whose LIHEAP benefits have expired. Also, officials hope that a new earned income tax credit program for the working poor in Connecticut will help cover energy costs. At least 190,000 households are expected to be eligible for the credits, which will average $540. The maximum credit is $1,700.

Despite those efforts by the state, House Speaker Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden and a candidate in the 5th congressional district race, didn't rule out the possibility that the state might eventually have to help make up the difference financially.

"We would have to address it. It's the right thing to do," said Donovan, who is still hoping Washington will come through with the full funding for the federal program.

Patrice Wrice, executive director of Operation Fuel, said she hopes the state will cover the cost if the federal funding is drastically cut. "I don't know where folks will go (for assistance), to be honest with you," she added.

Colton's report also found that more moderate income households are struggling to pay their energy bills in Connecticut. Increasing energy costs have pushed households in the top two income tiers of the federal poverty level to the point where they cannot afford their energy costs.

"The inability to meet basic needs in Connecticut is no longer the province of households traditionally considered to be low-income," Colton writes in the report. "The increasing movement of home energy unaffordability into the middle class is reflective of the growing mismatch between working incomes and the income a household requires to meet its basic family needs."

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Online: http://www.operationfuel.org