“A million to one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar.”
Legendary sportswriter Shirley Povich used those words to describe the late Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. But something equally improbable occurred late last year that made me recall those immortal words: A bitterly divided Congress passed bipartisan legislation for rural America.
Politics have become so polarized that it’s been nearly impossible for Democrats and Republicans to tackle big challenges. Yet, that’s exactly what happened in December in Washington, D.C., thanks to dedicated lawmakers from the Oregon congressional delegation.
I’m talking about the RURAL Act, which solved an existential issue for electric co-ops and America’s rural communities. To maintain their tax-exempt status, co-ops can receive no more than 15% of their income from nonmember sources. Historically, government grants to co-ops were counted as contributions to capital. But due to a glitch in the 2017 tax law, government grants were reclassified as income, pushing some co-ops beyond the 15% threshold.
Electric co-ops work to secure government grants to help pay for numerous activities that benefit the communities they serve. These include grants for broadband deployment, renewable energy and economic development. Perhaps the most vital are storm recovery grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Last winter, ice and snow pummeled electric cooperatives in Lane and Douglas counties, leaving thousands of consumers without power and saddling the co-ops with millions of dollars in damages.
For example, Douglas Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Roseburg, lost nearly 400 power poles and 105 miles of wire, causing $10 million in damage. The power may have been restored, but FEMA funds will be a vital part of a long and grueling recovery effort.
The tax problem left co-ops such as Douglas Electric with a difficult choice: Do they take the money they need to turn the lights back on for their members as quickly as possible after a disaster, or do they decline the grants to maintain their tax-exempt status to keep their rates affordable? It was a dilemma that no electric co-op should have to confront.
Moreover, the situation threatened to leave electric co-op consumers on the wrong side of the digital divide. Oregon electric cooperatives have helped bring broadband to their communities and others, from the south coast to the high desert, are exploring broadband deployment. Government grants help make it a reality. However, it’s hard to get on the right side of the digital divide when the process causes co-ops to lose their tax-exempt status.
The RURAL Act was introduced to ensure electric co-ops did not have to make these agonizing trade-offs.
The fact is, lots of bills are introduced, but few make it into law. Some feared Congress didn’t have the time to pass the RURAL Act; others said there were too many other pressing issues. I was also skeptical. I worked in Congress as a staff member in a less partisan time and witnessed major bipartisan legislation, but that seemed as distant as the day when an unlikely New York Yankee pitcher retired 27 Brooklyn Dodgers in a row.
Thankfully, the Oregon congressional delegation did not buy into the cynicism or partisanship. U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici, Peter DeFazio, Kurt Schrader and Greg Walden built support for the RURAL Act by being part of more than 300 cosponsors—an extraordinary number in a deeply divided Congress. Then, Sen. Ron Wyden used his considerable clout and key committee assignment to demand that the RURAL Act be included in the 2020 federal government spending bill, which it was. The spending bill was then signed into law by President Donald Trump.
Oregon’s electric cooperatives are extremely grateful to the members of our congressional delegation for their support of the RURAL Act. By standing up for Oregon’s rural communities, they demonstrated—in the darkest of political times—a shining example of bipartisan cooperation.
While Congress will continue to be maligned, I will point out that Don Larsen also faced criticism for his career losing record. But during a frenzied day on Capitol Hill last December, just like that crisp fall afternoon in Yankee Stadium so along ago, the U.S. Congress and Don Larsen were not only good, they performed to perfection.