Oregon electric co-op leaders travel to Capitol Hill seeking disaster aid for storm damage— as well as relief from policies that could have disastrous consequences for their members

By Ted Case

Oregon electric co-op leaders thanked Rep. Kurt Schrader, fourth from left, for his support of legislation to improve reliability by streamlining vegetation management practices in federal rights-of-way.

The largest group from Oregon electric co-ops ever to attend the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association legislative conference traveled to Washington, D.C., in early May to lobby their congressional delegation, key committees and the Trump administration on a range of proposals important to co-op members.

Rep. Greg Walden, right, expressed his strong opposition to the sale of the Bonneville Power Administration.

NRECA’s legislative conference attracts nearly 2,000 electric co-op leaders from across the country, but the timing of the rally was particularly relevant for Oregon.

In April, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown requested federal disaster declaration for counties devastated by the winter storms that closed roads and caused widespread power outages. The storms caused nearly $10 million in damage for Roseburg-based Douglas Electric Cooperative and $5 million for Lane Electric, headquartered in Eugene. Oregon electric co-op leaders used a White House meeting to urge high-ranking Trump administration officials to approve Gov. Brown’s disaster aid request.

Co-op leaders also pressed officials with land management agencies to finalize regulations regarding vegetation management policies that will increase reliability of the electric grid and mitigate wildfires that swept across the West in 2018 because of trees falling into power lines. Oregon co-ops were strong supporters of legislation that passed in the previous Congress to streamline vegetation management practices, including offering congressional testimony on two separate occasions.

Oregon electric cooperative leaders brief Sen. Jeff Merkley, third from left, on their plans to electrify Guatemalan villages in 2020.

After heading to Capitol Hill, the leaders met with their senators and representatives, urging support for the RURAL Act (S. 1032, H.R. 2147) that would protect electric cooperatives’ tax-exempt status as a result of an unintended consequence of the tax code. Co-ops receive grants for a variety of purposes, including economic development and storm restoration. Because of tax law, these government grants could jeopardize a co-op’s tax-exempt status, forcing difficult choices for co-ops and their members.

The trip yielded positive results for Oregon co-op leaders. Only days after returning from Washington, D.C., President Donald Trump announced he had approved disaster assistance to Oregon counties. Key members of the Oregon delegation also announced support for the RURAL Act.