Because of rising natural gas prices, winter’s bite will have extra sting this year. With heating bills on the increase, this is going to be a very tough winter for many Oklahoma families, and we want to do everything we can to assist them. Our first step was boosting funds for a heating assistance program.

Working with legislative leaders and the Department of Human Services (DHS), we have agreed to allocate state funds to supplement the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

The DHS-administered program is slated to allocate about $10 million in federal funds to Oklahomans this winter, but heating bills could increase by as much as 50 percent because of rising fuel costs.

To help cushion the blow of that price hike, we have agreed to add at least $5 million in state funds to LIHEAP to match the expected spike in heating costs. If costs rise higher than projections, additional state funding will be provided.

This additional funding won’t meet all of the needs, but it is a step in the right direction.

In hopes of stretching the program even further, I am pushing for increased federal funding for LIHEAP, and I will continue to monitor the situation to determine if additional state funds should be added.

Meanwhile, I urge all Oklahomans to be cautious this winter. While staying warm is critical, particularly for the elderly, care must be taken against another threat — fire.

As always, electric space heaters and wood stoves or fireplaces can be very hazardous and must be carefully monitored. Keep a large area around fires and heaters clear, and be sure you have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

Let’s make this a warm and safe winter for all Oklahomans.

(Gov. Brad Henry may be reached by writing him at the Office of the Governor, Room 212, Oklahoma City OK 73105 or visit the “Contact the Governor” section of his Web site, www.gov.ok.gov.)

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