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Electric co-op leaders take the members' case to
Washington, D.C. during annual NRECA Legislative Conference

by Bob McEowen

Rep. Ike Skelton visits with a delegation of Missouri electric co-op managers, employees and directors in Washington, D.C., for the annual NRECA :Legislative Conference.

Their appointment was for 2 p.m. but at 10 minutes til U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton opened the door to his Washington, D.C., office and invited a delegation of rural electric cooperative managers, employees and directors into his office.

"Come on in here," he said. "I have a hearing starting at 2. If I'm not there they'll hold up the hearing waiting for me. Make yourselves at home and I'll be back."

With that Skelton left, leaving the group of co-op leaders from the Fourth Congressional District to visit with an aide in his Rayburn Building office. Twenty minutes later he returned, took his seat behind his desk and said, "What's up?"

For the next half hour the congressman gave his undivided attention to these visiting constituents and listened as members of the group delivered the rural electric co-op message — a message of "consumers first."

The visit to Skelton's office was just one of several calls Missouri electric co-op leaders made early in May. In town for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association's 2001 Legislative Conference, 35 co-op employees and directors from Missouri made contact with every member of Congress representing our state. In each case they told our elected officials or their staff that as America considers its energy future the nation can look to cooperatives to fight for consumers.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson greets Missouri co-op leaders in her Washington, D.C., office.

"Together, as a mighty voice, we will explain to our representatives and senators how to put consumers first in the legislation being considered right now," said Dena Stoner, vice president for government relations at NRECA, the national association of electric co-ops.

Speaking at a briefing session for 2,800 conference attendees from 42 states, Stoner brought co-op leaders up to date on pending legislation and offered a unified message for America's member-owned electric co-ops.

"You must say to members of Congress, 'I am a member of an electric cooperative. I and 34 million owners like me am prepared to provide my own energy needs. I don't need extensive red tape from FERC regulation to make myself give myself reasonable rates,'" Stoner said.

Recent proposals to bring electric co-ops under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was one of several topics on the minds of visiting co-op leaders.

In recent months some lawmakers have claimed non-FERC regulated co-ops are part of California's energy mess. In Washington, co-op leaders responded by pointing out that co-ops are conspicuously absent from lists of utilities accused of price gouging.

Other issues on the minds of co-op leaders included fairness in tax policy and a move to repeal the Public Utility Holding Company Act, or PUHCA, which has protected consumers from monopoly abuse since 1935.

While obscure federal laws and regulatory agencies seem a world away from Missouri electric co-ops, unfortunately, they are not.

Gene Dorrel, manager of Maryville-based United Electric Cooperative, and Harold Haldiman, a director from Co-Mo Electric in Tipton, visit with Rep. Sam Graves.

"It's a political world," says Gene Dorrel, manager of Maryville based United Electric Cooperative and chairman of the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperative's Legislative and Government Relations Committee. "You either get involved in politics or be prepared to live with laws enacted by your adversaries."

And while the entire history of electric cooperatives is steeped in politics, rarely has involvement in the process been more important than today, says Dorrel, who attended this year's conference.

"When you look at deregulation there is nothing that has come to pass in the last few years that could have more direct effect on our business," he says.

But unlike other businesses which take their case to Washington, D.C., co-ops have a different motivation. "It's all about the members. It always has been," says Jay Turner, a cattleman from Columbia and president of the Boone Electric Cooperative board of directors.

Turner, who has participated in more than a dozen legislative conference trips, reacts strongly to any comparison to some others who call on Congress.

"It really aggravates me when someone says we're going there to do 'special interest' work. It's a bad word. That's a huge chemical company, a big manufacturing company, the tobacco group," he says. "We're not special interest. We do want some special attention but the benefits go to all of us."

Because, ultimately, it is members who benefit when co-op leaders take their consumers-first message to Washington, Turner says he's willing to take time away from his farm to make the trip.

Frank Stork, executive vice president of the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, introduces calls on members of the Missouri delegation to brief U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan.

"I feel privileged to have some input and hopefully some effect, a small voice, for the people in Boone Electric's area — my neighbors, my friends, people I don't know, but still one family as we are all members of Boone Electric," he says.

Judging by the warm reception offered by congressional leaders, it appears our representives understand that a visit from co-op leaders is a visit from consumers. Whether the calls on Congress had any effect remains to be seen though, Turner says.

"We'll never know if we made a big difference but if we didn't go, and we hadn't tried, we would know what kind of difference we made," he says. "It would have been zero."

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