The House passed a $2.2 trillion COVID-19 relief package Thursday that includes $4.5 billion to help struggling families pay their electric bills.
The Senate is not expected to take up the bill, but NRECA will push for the funding for low-income families—and RUS loan repricing—to be included in final compromise legislation the House and Senate may ultimately be able to craft with the Trump administration.
The relief package passed by the House on Thursday is an updated version of the HEROES Act and would boost funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP. Funding for the program, a NRECA legislative priority, is triple the amount in the earlier version of the bill and would help electric cooperative members and other consumers heat their homes this winter. NRECA leaders say the assistance is especially crucial during the pandemic, which has battered the rural economy and increased unemployment.
“The significant increase in LIHEAP funding will help consumers pay their bills and avoid growing debt during these difficult economic times,” said NRECA CEO Jim Matheson.
The House package did not include NRECA’s top legislative priority, the Flexible Financing for Rural America Act. That bipartisan bill could save co-ops more than $10 billion by allowing them to reprice loans from the Rural Utilities Service at current low interest rates. It also would waive any prepayment penalties normally associated with refinancing.
However, the House-passed package provides $2.6 billion in grants for co-ops that are already RUS borrowers and are suffering financial hardships from the pandemic. That amount is close to the first-year funding levels required for the RUS repricing bill and would create room in the budget for negotiations with the Senate. NRECA lobbyists will work with lawmakers to include the RUS loan repricing provisions in the final package approved by Congress.
Negotiations among the House, Senate and Trump administration are expected to continue as both parties try to provide more COVID-19 relief before the November election. The Flexible Financing for Rural America Act has widespread support, with more than 100 bipartisan co-sponsors in the House and more than 20 in the Senate.
“As Congress continues to discuss another COVID-19 relief package, electric co-ops are heartened that leaders are recognizing the need to address the financial strain that co-ops and their consumer-members are facing,” Matheson said. “We also look forward to discussing options that would allow electric co-ops to seize on historically low interest rates and enable long-term financial certainty.”
Erin Kelly is a staff writer at NRECA.