HARRISBURG - With frigid conditions gripping the state, an unlikely group of community activists and advocates for utilities gathered in the Capitol yesterday to push for more - and more consistent - funding for the state's heating assistance program for the poor.

The groups, including the Community Action Association of Pennsylvania and the Energy Association of Pennsylvania, outlined how rising heating and cooling costs affect low-income residents. They also made a series of recommendations to improve the state's energy-assistance program, known as LIHEAP.

Among them: expand the state's annual contribution to LIHEAP, which is almost entirely federally funded, and make it a contribution set in stone, not one that changes from year to year.

Advocates also hope that LIHEAP, which issues grants throughout the winter, will be turned into a year-round program.

"We need more," said Sonny Popowsky, Pennsylvania's consumer advocate.

The need is great, advocates argue: The number of residents applying for LIHEAP grants this winter jumped 16 percent from last year. That number was culled from data recently released by the state Department of Public Welfare, which administers the program.

But then there is the harsh reality of the state's fiscal situation. Johnna Pro, spokeswoman for State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), said yesterday that the state faces huge deficits over the next two years.

"Dwight certainly is sympathetic to the message the activists brought to the Capitol," Pro said of Evans, who chairs the Appropriations Committee. "There will be a lot of cuts. And there is little talk of increasing funding or expanding programs."

Chuck Ardo, spokesman for Gov. Rendell, pointed out that "although the commonwealth has recently provided additional funding for the program, the primary source of funding continues to be the federal government.

"Clearly, appeals for additional resources should be directed toward Washington."

In October, Rendell announced more funding for LIHEAP. The extra money - $10 million from the state, but most coming from the federal government - brought the total amount of grants available through LIHEAP to roughly $280 million.

As a result, the state was able to expand eligibility this winter to Pennsylvanians earning up to $44,443 for a family of four - an increase from 150 percent of the federal poverty level to approximately 210 percent.

But advocates warned yesterday that the continuing economic downturn would leave more people vulnerable to soaring energy bills and utility shutoffs.

Jim Stark of the Community Action Association of Pennsylvania put it this way: "Are we going to let people freeze?"

Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.