The week of March 12 was an eventful one in Nashville, to say the least. More than 200 devoted directors and employees from Tennessee’s electric cooperatives were in the state capital to participate in the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association’s annual Legislative Conference, Day on the Hill and Legislative Reception. Taking time away from their busy schedules, these individuals heard from and talked with some of Tennessee’s most powerful governmental officials about the key issues impacting your local community — and your member-owned electric co-op. I had the privilege of coordinating these two very full days, but fortunately I was unable complete all of the activities myself. I’ll get to that in a minute.
The events began when Gov. Bill Haslam addressed the group. “It is an honor to travel around the state and meet people who really do care about their communities, and you all represent businesses that do that,” said Gov. Haslam. “You really are trying your best to provide a service that people need at the lowest possible cost. I am grateful for what you are doing.”
Rather than merely speaking to the conference attendees, the governor asked a pretty simple question: What do we think his job is? Or, stated differently, what should he be doing to best perform his job as the chief executive of state government? Answers to his question spawned discussion about job recruitment, energy policy, environmental protections and the role and function of state government. Haslam discussed his initiatives to modernize state government, especially its employment practices, in order to provide the best services for the lowest cost.
At the conclusion of his time, it was our honor to present the governor a special copy of “Barns of Tennessee,” a popular book that features photos — most of which were submitted by the readers of this magazine — of some of Tennessee’s most picturesque farms and barns.
During the conference, TECA staff explained to co-op directors and employees how this year’s redrawing of House and Senate districts is impacting the representation of rural and suburban Tennessee in both the State Legislature and Congress. Because growth in urban areas of the state has been greater than that of rural regions, the balance of power in the General Assembly is shifting due to these demographic changes. We stressed that it is important to recognize these changes and be proactive in our efforts to ensure that your co-op remains strong for the future.
State Sen. Jack Johnson of Franklin provided an update on the priorities of the Senate, specifically the activities of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Labor and Agriculture. Sen. Johnson is the chairman of this very important committee, which has broad jurisdiction over many issues, including most that impact the operations of your local cooperative. He approaches his duty very seriously and is responsible for maintaining the civility and fairness of the debates that take place in the committee. We believe he does an excellent job running the committee and appreciate his willingness to answer the tough questions.
Attendees were also briefed on pending legislation that would impact Tennessee’s electric cooperatives. The common theme among all the bills that were discussed is the unique way in which your cooperative operates — through you, the owner. Our association becomes concerned when legislation would limit a board’s ability to act in the best interests of its members. We believe that our cooperative governance structure provides the most effective way to operate a nonprofit business because you elect the directors who set the cooperative’s policies. Cooperative members are best served when these local policies are made by local board members elected to run the co-op. This locally controlled business model nearly eliminates the need for the state or federal government to be involved in the cooperative’s affairs.
Armed with this information, the attendees then set out to meet with their legislators to help them better understand electric cooperatives and the specific pending legislation that impacts our ability to provide safe, reliable, affordable energy.
The primary issue facing electric cooperatives this year is nothing new — pole attachments. Electric utilities charge cable TV and telephone providers when they attach their wires to electric poles. Think of this like rent — your cooperative owns a house, but the cable and telephone company wants to rent out a room in the house. However, renting a room makes the cost of living in the house higher because that additional renter uses more of the house’s resources (electricity, heating and cooling, water, etc). You might even have to get a bigger house just to accommodate all the extra renters.
Cable and telephone companies believe that government should mandate that this “rent” be lower. Much lower. But co-ops know they charge fair rates that are based on the actual cost of buying, installing and maintaining a pole. These costs are then spread out among everybody who is sharing the pole. Pretty simple, huh?
Thankfully, the members of Tennessee’s legislature have seen the efforts to regulate pole attachments for what they are: an attempt to get a free ride. During this year’s Legislative Conference, our attendees were able to see presentations from both sides of this issue given to Chairman Johnson and the Senate Commerce Committee during a committee session. While no vote was taken that day, the result was clear: Electric cooperatives and their locally elected boards are doing what is right for their communities.
I wasn’t there to help present the arguments to the Senate Commerce Committee. And as I mentioned at the beginning of this column, I’m thankful I wasn’t. Just an hour or two before the presentation began, I was at Baptist Hospital with my wife, welcoming our fourth son into the world. Mom and baby Drew are doing great. God has blessed me with a great job, but an even better family.