Co-op leaders cover priority issues on Capitol Hill

Earlier this month, representatives from Ohio cooperatives discussed policy issues including the farm bill, rural broadband expansion, and pension reform with members of Ohio’s congressional delegation, including Sens. Sherrod Brown (above) and Rob Portman (below).

Ohio electric cooperative leaders joined more than 2,000 of their counterparts from around the country to discuss legislative and regulatory concerns with members of Congress at the 2018 NRECA Legislative Conference, held earlier this month in Washington, D.C.

NRECA CEO Jim Matheson thanked attendees for their work in building relationships with policymakers that improve their members’ lives every day.

“It’s so important that you are here today,” said Matheson. “Thank you for your role and being here and advocating for rural electric cooperatives.”

Matheson noted that political engagement helped secure $600 million for rural broadband loans and grants from U.S. Department of Agriculture in the omnibus spending bill passed by Congress in March. That bill also included $5.5 billion for the federal electric loan program, funding for continued NRECA cybersecurity research, and provisions streamlining vegetation management on federal lands.

Co-ops’ work in political engagement must continue, however, given that dozens of members of Congress are leaving office at the end of their terms.

“We are going to have a bunch of new faces in Washington,” Matheson said, urging co-op leaders to engage with candidates now “so they know us and know our policy issues before the elections.”

The farm bill was front and center in meetings with legislators, according to Marc Armstrong, director of government affairs at Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives.

“The farm bill isn’t just about agriculture – it’s also a rural development bill,” said Armstrong. “A good farm bill must include support for programs that improve the quality of life for rural Americans.”

With rural areas lagging far behind their urban and suburban counterparts in access to high-speed broadband internet, electric cooperatives are hoping to build off the success of the omnibus to further expand funding for broadband grant and loan programs.

“The rural broadband funding in the omnibus was a good down payment, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done,” said Armstrong. “We need the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) to be a partner in overcoming the high-cost barriers that impede the expansion of broadband technology.”

Electric cooperatives are also focused on a more traditional function of RUS: its loan program, which provides low-interest financing to electric cooperatives. Co-ops are asking legislators to modernize RUS in the farm bill by allowing co-ops to refinance loan obligations without costly prepayment penalties.

Protecting co-op employees’ pensions was also a key priority in office visits. Currently, electric co-ops in the NRECA retirement security (RS) plan are mandated to pay unreasonably high premiums to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, even though Congress has recognized that the co-op RS plan is at virtually no risk of default.

Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in both chambers to fix this problem, and Ohio co-op leaders urged their representatives and senators to offer their support.