September 26, 2016

The Power of Grassroots

Electric co-op consumer-members can help shape rules and laws that keep electricity reliable, affordable and environmentally responsible.

Craig Borr, MECA President/CEO, greets U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow at an electric co-op meeting in Lansing. MECA and its electric co-op members work to build a close working relationship with elected officials on behalf of the co-ops’ consumer members.

Craig Borr, MECA President/CEO, greets U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow at an electric co-op meeting in Lansing. MECA and its electric co-op members work to build a close working relationship with elected officials on behalf of the co-ops’ consumer members.

Electric co-ops often ask their consumer-members to get involved when it comes to laws and regulations that affect the affordability or reliability of electric service. But what does it really mean for you to be part of this “grassroots” movement?

This grassroots groundwork has already paid off for electric co-op members and Michiganders who want renewable energy, but in an affordable, responsible manner. Last year, co-op members and many other groups, such as the Michigan Farm Bureau, chambers of commerce, churches and labor unions campaigned against Proposal 3. The proposal would have amended the state’s constitution to require that 25 percent of electricity be generated by in-state renewable sources by 2025. It was defeated by 63 percent of the voters because of its estimated $12 billion price tag, and the state already had renewable standards requiring electric utilities and suppliers to have 10 percent renewables in their generation mix by 2015. Another reason is they agreed the constitution is not the right place for enacting ever-changing energy policy.

“The defeat of Proposal 3 is just one recent example of the electric co-op network working with its members to ensure an affordable, reliable and environmentally responsible energy future and improved rural quality of life,” explains Craig Borr, president/CEO of the Michigan Electric Cooperative Association (MECA).

“At MECA, we do our part to work with lawmakers on policies that are fair to electric co-op consumer-members,” Borr says. “But our consumer-members provide the real legislative muscle, and we need them to flex it now more than ever.”

Nationwide, electric co-ops boast one of the largest potential grassroots bases, with 42 million people spread across 75 percent of the U.S. receiving electric service.

Mobilizing Consumer-members

It’s easy to see why electric co-op consumer-members should be involved, says Randy Dwyer, grassroots director at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), the trade organization that represents over 900 nonprofit, member-owned electric co-ops.

“Electric co-ops should include their members in the political process because members provide the real voice,” Dwyer stresses. “The co-op looks out for them, but if they’re going to speak on behalf of their members, members must be engaged in the process.”

To that end, MECA and other electric co-op statewide associations work with their member co-ops to create political action plans and help them engage legislatively. For example, the MECA team coordinates and participates in hundreds of outreach efforts with its member co-ops throughout the year. This includes everything from supporting local fundraising events to hosting elected officials at local co-op offices and organizing six to eight outreach visits to Washington, D.C., with its members. All of these efforts are possible because of the close working relationship MECA has built with elected officials over the years.

“We want consumer-members to get used to receiving political information from their local co-op, so they’re familiar with the issues when it’s time to take action,” Borr adds.

As a result, co-op member-consumers will sometimes see policy-related articles in this magazine, and through other media from their local co-op. When necessary, they’ll see a call to action, as happened with Proposal 3.

“Our consumer-members can make a difference,” Borr says. “They can help shape the laws and rules that affect their electric service and their wallets.”

Why Co-ops Care

Since electric co-ops have members, not customers, and they are nonprofit—it means your electric co-op isn’t creating excess revenue for far-away investors. All the money stays local, and when revenues exceed operating costs, members receive allocations called “capital credits.” The co-op business model also requires them to enhance the quality of life in the communities they serve, and that naturally extends to statehouses and Washington, D.C.

Lobbying—aka “advocacy”—involves citizens talking directly with legislators. It’s one of the five freedoms enshrined by the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law abridging the right of the people to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

That’s why MECA works with both the Michigan Legislature and Congress. The NRECA headquarters is in Arlington, VA—just across the river from the capital—and maintains a staff of lobbyists that spend most of their time on Capitol Hill and working with various agencies on the co-ops’ behalf.

NRECA was formed in 1942 specifically to overcome World War II shortages of electric construction materials, obtain insurance coverage for the new electric co-ops, and rectify wholesale power supply problems. Since those early days, NRECA has advocated for consumer-owned co-ops on energy and operational issues as well as community and economic development.

Today, these lobbyists actively deal with two-thirds of U.S. House and Senate committees and subcommittees. Each year, hundreds of bills are introduced that could directly affect electric co-op members—issues ranging from energy and climate change policy to disaster relief, endangered species protection, and railroad reform.

The NRECA lobbyists get their “marching orders” from your electric co-op’s board of directors, who are elected by you and your neighbors. Each year, electric co-op representatives also meet to vote on resolutions that direct NRECA’s policy agenda.

To help MECA and their co-ops set legislative policies and determine which political candidates to support, members of the NRECA Government Relations staff meet weekly to discuss contributions to candidates, fundraising and political party events, grassroots electric co-op participation in Washington, D.C., and state political events. Then, NRECA’s staff, statewide managers and state political action committees reach an agreement on which candidates should get contributions. NRECA and MECA work very closely to ensure all funds are invested wisely and support candidates based solely on their record and support for electric co-op issues, regardless of political party. Where You Come In

Dwyer echoes Borr in that co-ops can’t go it alone. “CEOs and co-op boards are doing everything they can to keep electric costs affordable,” Dwyer says. “And they do a great job of it. But there are things outside their control, like rules and regulations, that affect prices and service. By having a strong political action plan, a dedicated workforce, and engaged members, each co-op can help drive these concerns home. And when lawmakers hear from the folks—voters—back home, they listen.”

How To Get Involved

The national platform for electric co-op consumers to voice their concerns to Congress is the “Our Energy, Our Future®” campaign. To learn more about the issues facing your electric co-op and sign up to make your voice heard, visit: OurEnergy.coop