By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director
It’s hard to imagine a better time to be in Washington, D.C., than during cherry blossom season.
This year, the annual legislative conference hosted by our national trade group, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, brought Colorado electric co-op representatives to D.C. in time for the annual pink and white spectacle. The Yoshino cherry trees around the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial and on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol were in full bloom and provided a spark of hope in the midst of the contentious political atmosphere that dominates the city.
While we were in Washington, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), announced that he would not be seeking reelection to his congressional seat this fall, therefore giving up the speakership. This is one more indication that our country’s two major political parties are further apart than ever and, even within the major parties, there are factions that make legislative compromises hard to reach.
But, despite the divisive political atmosphere, there are issues that receive bipartisan support. One area of agreement for a majority of those elected to Congress, including the entire Colorado delegation, is the value of the electric cooperative program and the need to support that program in various legislative proposals. When we visited Washington, we discussed a number of these issues as we met with Colorado’s senators and representatives.
Our first request involved funding for the electric co-op loan program. The recent budget agreement provides adequate funding for electric co-ops and our “ask” during the legislative rally was for Congress to continue that funding through 2019. Building and maintaining the facilities needed to provide power in rural America is expensive. Since co-ops don’t have access to a tax base and can’t sell bonds like other utilities, it helps to have access to loans from the government. And electric co-op loans are beneficial to the government, since the co-ops repay these loans with interest. This is one program that adds to the government coffers.
We also asked our congressional delegation to support several ongoing co-op programs as a part of a comprehensive farm bill being negotiated. The Rural Energy for America Program, the Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program and the Rural Energy Savings Program are all programs that enable co-ops to assist their members and rural communities. We asked our delegation to support these programs.
A second issue that we brought up with our delegation involved funding for rural broadband to assist those co-ops that want to provide broadband in their communities. We were successful in the state legislature this year in making funds available for rural broadband. Additional federal support of rural broadband could help some of these projects.
Finally, we asked our delegation to oppose any plans to sell the transmission assets of the power marketing administrations, or PMAs, that currently sell their electricity to co-ops and other public power utilities.
Co-ops and other “preference power” customers paid the costs of operating the federal dams and power generating stations for decades and should continue to receive the benefits of those resources. We asked that the PMAs continue to sell their power to existing customers at cost-based rates, which will help maintain stable rates for all of Colorado’s co-op members.
It was good to find issues that can be solved as we all work together, no matter what our political leanings are. When I’m in Washington, I like to take a morning run around the Capitol building, past the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress, down the National Mall past the Washington Monument and the World War II Memorial and on down to the Lincoln Memorial. I always make it a point to run up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and read the Gettysburg Address on the south wall of the memorial and Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address on the north wall.
In the Second Inaugural Address, President Lincoln could see that the Civil War was finally coming to an end, and he knew there would be a postwar need for reconciliation between the north and the south. While our challenges today pale in comparison to the challenges of 1865, Lincoln’s suggestion that we act “with malice toward none and with charity for all” remains good advice for contemporary politicians.
We can find ways to come together, even if it is only to agree that the cherry blossoms are spectacular.