Lobbying for Your Interests
April 26th, 2012 by Jennifer Brown

Electric co-op activists visit Capitol Hill and state legislatures to keep legislation and regulation under control

Lobbyists gather on Capitol Hill to discuss issues important to rural electric cooperatives.

Lobbyists gather on Capitol Hill to discuss issues important to rural electric cooperatives.

Lobbyists. This single word can evoke black-and-white images of shifty-eyed businessmen in suits, making shady deals in exchange for their own personal gain.

But lobbying—the process of meeting with legislators to inform them about positions on important issues—is not only a sophisticated process, it benefits members of electric cooperatives.

“My job is to stay in touch with state and federal legislators, meeting them and telling our story,” says Ted Case, executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “Rural electric cooperative members can take comfort that each year leaders from local co-ops visit with legislators, advocating on their behalf.

“It’s not glamorous work, but it pays dividends for cooperative members in the form of lower electricity bills and reliable service,” he says.

Legislative Conference

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association is the national service organization for more than 900 not-for-profit rural electric cooperatives and public power districts. Every May, NRECA welcomes co-op grassroots advocates to Washington, D.C., for the annual Legislative Conference.

The electric cooperative advocates come from across the United States to spend time on Capitol Hill talking to their congressional delegations and congressional staff about legislative issues that affect co-ops and their member-owners.

The focus of this year’s event, which was April 29 through May 1, was on increasing electric cooperatives’ grassroots strength to prepare for legislative battles in 2013 and beyond.

Among other agenda items, attendees heard perspectives from former members of Congress; discussed effective grassroots advocacy strategies with Congress; and heard preliminary results of an audit of electric co-op grassroots programs.

Defining Grassroots

For electric co-ops, “grassroots” starts with the activists who participate in the political process to protect their co-op from harmful legislation and regulation, and promote the value of co-op ownership to their legislators. These activists include directors, managers, employees and member-owners.

Grassroots involvement also can mean communicating with local, state and federal legislators on issues affecting electric cooperatives. It can mean efforts by co-op supporters through the Action Committee for Rural Electrification to help candidates committed to protecting electric cooperatives and the mission of co-ops.

Historically, electric cooperative board members and employees lobby to keep power affordable and reliable, and maintain local control.

These leaders not only are well-versed on the issues, but are guided by doing what is right for co-op members rather than by profit.

The Issues by State

Following are some of the issues that are top priorities in states in Ruralite country.

Alaska: The Alaska electric utility industry is focused on the need for funding mechanisms for power projects and utility infrastructure; the need for a Cook Inlet gas management plan; and continued funding of a grant program for renewable energy projects.

“There is also a focus on continued funding for the Power Cost Equalization program that provides economic assistance to customers in rural Alaska, where the kilowatt-hour charge for electricity can be three to five times higher than the charge in more urban areas of the state,” says Crystal Enkvist, director of member and public relations at Alaska Power Association.

Arizona: Maintaining the $6.1 billion funding for electric loan programs is an important topic in Arizona, says Tom Jones, chief executive officer of Grand Canyon State Electric Cooperative Association.

Other hot topics include regulatory issues as they relate to the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean water and clean air rules; the endangered species act as it relates to rights of way; and pension reform.

California: A greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program—a central element of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32)—is critical in California, says Jessica Nelson, general manager of Golden State Power Cooperative. The program covers major sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, such as refineries, power plants, industrial facilities and transportation fuels. The regulation includes an enforceable GHG cap that will decline over time. The Air Resources Board will distribute allowances—which are tradable permits—equal to the emission allowed under the cap.

Idaho: Transmission, siting, tax incentives for energy production, ownership of renewable energy credits, use of road rights of way and eminent domain issues are among the issues important in Idaho, says Idaho Consumer-Owned Utilities Association Executive Director Will Hart.

ICUA represents 23 rural electric cooperatives and municipal power companies in Idaho.

“Ninety-six percent of the power we purchase for our members we buy from the Bonneville Power Administration, so we are always very involved with decisions that may affect BPA negatively or actions from BPA that affect our customers,” says Hart.

Nevada: Co-op customers in Nevada continue to seek a common goal: reliable, affordable electric service.

“The utilities work at trying to deal with the big energy issues of the day, like renewable portfolio standards and other mandates, hoping to achieve a balance of what society has identified as important and meeting the goals of reliability and affordability for our members,” says Clay Fitch, Wells Rural Electric manager.

Oregon: As in years past, BPA—which sells clean, renewable electricity to cooperatives from dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers—and its rates remain of top interest to co-op members in Oregon, Case says.

Washington: Maintaining operational control at the local level is a priority in Washington, says Kent Lopez, general manager of the Washington Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“We work very hard to minimize mandates from the legislature,” says Kent. “We emphasize that one size doesn’t fit all.”

There are more than 60 utility companies in the state, ranging from 500-member co-ops to million-customer businesses.

“One idea might work well for a larger utility, but a new mandate can be daunting for a smaller co-op,” Lopez says.

The Bottom Line

The goal of electric co-op lobbyists is to keep electric rates affordable, power supply reliable and government interference at a minimum.

State government regulates the big utilities to protect the interest of consumers. That kind of regulation is not necessary for member-owned utilities, Lopez says.

“Customers are already doing that,” he says. “They’re running them the way they see best.”

Get Involved!

Our Energy, Our Future
This national grassroots campaign engages consumer-members in a conversation with elected officials about how legislative goals are met, while keeping electricity reliable and affordable. To join the campaign, go to http://www.ourenergy.coop.

Take Action Network
Consumer-members are invited to engage with Congress and their own state legislature. The website provides tools and multimedia information on getting involved, as well as background issues important to electric cooperatives. The network occasionally hosts time-sensitive action items, inviting consumers to participate. Go to http://www.takeaction.nreca.coop.

Action Committee for Rural Electrification
ACRE is NRECA’s political action committee. It was formed in 1966 with the mission of making the voice of rural electric cooperative consumers heard in the U.S. Congress. ACRE is among the top 100 largest PACs in the nation, with more than 29,000 people contributing. It financially supports candidates who support the interests of electric co-ops. Learn more at http://www.nreca.coop/programs/PoliticalAction