United Leadership Treks to Austin to Ensure
Lawmakers Understand Co-op Needs, Viewpoints
A delegation of four board members and four employees from United Cooperative Services met with Texas state legislators to discuss issues that cooperatives could face during the upcoming legislative session.
United was one of 50 cooperatives and about 200 people who attended Texas Electric Cooperatives’ legislative rally Feb. 4-5 at the Texas State Capitol.
“We have a strong relationship locally with our legislators,” said United CEO Cameron Smallwood. “However, it’s really important for them to see us come to Austin. It means a lot to them for local folks to show up in their office and show that we support them in their local community and in Austin. These legislative rallies give us the opportunity to bring up issues we feel are important for them to consider regarding legislation that is affecting or may affect electric cooperatives.
“It’s also a great opportunity for our board and employees to have a dialogue with our representatives and reiterate that we’re watching very closely from home what goes on and we’re totally supportive of what our representatives do for us.”
While there, Smallwood and others discussed the steps United and other co-ops take on a daily basis to ensure physical and cyber security and to stay several steps ahead of computer hackers who may try to harm the country’s electrical grid with computerized chaos. Many legislators were not fully aware of the processes in place to keep hackers out, Smallwood said, and officials explained that was partially on purpose.
“We explained it was intentional,” he said. “We don’t want to broadcast what we do from a security standpoint. However, we’d be glad to work with them and explain how we go about ensuring grid security.”
Topics included the rights of electric cooperatives to provide broadband across their existing infrastructure and use existing easements for that purpose. Co-op representatives also discussed a pending bill regarding eminent domain, how the current laws already prescribe a lengthy and fair procedure for eminent domain related to placement of electric infrastructure. Additional legislation, he said, may put undue requirements for co-ops to distribute electricity.
“We’re in complete support of landowner rights,” Smallwood said. “No way are we not about that. That’s why we don’t use condemnation very often. But sometimes it becomes necessary, in a new transmission infrastructure situation; no one wants a transmission line on their property. The process we already have in place takes landowner’s desires, their property and the greater good into account as well as fair market value and other variables to create the best possible scenario for everyone involved.”
Eric Craven, TEC senior vice president of government relations and legal affairs, said he thought this year’s rally went well, and most all attendees managed to meet face-to-face with their representatives.
“The rally went very well, with our folks receiving a warm reception from their legislators,” Craven said. “Every electric cooperative is invited to send representatives to discuss issues of importance to electric cooperatives and our members: regulation, taxes, energy resources and rural broadband were some of the issues covered. The work of lawmakers is too important to not engage with them when they are making decisions that affect our cooperatives. When legislators have a question about cooperatives or about the electric industry generally, they know to call United because of the relationships that exist. Participation in the legislative rally only strengthens those relationships.
United serves as a model for how co-ops should approach relationships with legislators, Craven said, because co-op officials cultivate good working relationships with lawmakers and their staff throughout the year, not just at rally time.
“United is, without a doubt, a leader,” he said. “United’s participation was excellent, as always, and United’s legislators know the cooperative and its personnel very well before they come to Austin to visit, which makes for more productive meetings. That is grassroots at its best.”