Poor hit the hardest by Texas heat, legislature

Drought in state of Texas
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DALLAS - The temperature in Dallas today hit triple-digits. Over the past two months, it's done that 41 times in 42 days.

CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann reports Texas has a fund to help the poor pay their electricity bills. But somewhere between the fund and the people who need it, the money hit a short circuit.

In scorching Dallas, overheated seniors sought relief at an air conditioned Catholic charities center. Mary Ann Torres was also looking for financial relief. She can't afford to power the two window air conditioners that struggle to keep her house bearable.

"I don't think we've ever had it this hot before," Torres says. On a fixed monthly income of $791 her electric bill can top $200.

There is a Texas program to help people like Torres. Every month most Texans are required to pay an extra dollar for their power bill. That money, about $146 million this year, is supposed to go to utilities to lower electricty bills for the poor. But this year the Lite-Up Texas program will release just $66 million. The state treasury is keeping the rest.

Lite-Up Texas

Texas legislators, eager to avoid a tax increase, approved setting aside the Lite-Up money to balance the state's checkbook. This isn't the first time.

More than $900 million of "Lite-Up" money will be parked in the state treasury by 2013. Texas lawmakers say there's no plan for the money to ever be used for its original purpose.

"I call it political thievery, it's stealing," says Texas state representative Sylvester Turner. "The government in the state of Texas is now addicted to this fund. We're addicted to it, and we're going to continue to remain addicted to it until someone exercises the will and the courage to pull away from it."

The needy can see the results in their electric bills. The 17 percent monthly discount "Lite-Up" funded all year has been cut to 10 percent. It's now available only during the five hottest months.

"I feel like all the poor people have been forgotten," Torres says. "They promise, promise, but they don't come through with what they're promising."

It's a crisis with life and death consequences. Last month an 81-year-old man was found dead in his hot home - his air conditioner turned off. Relatives say he couldn't afford his electric bill.

  • Mark Strassmann
    Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.