A $1.3 trillion spending bill that includes a number of electric cooperative priorities passed Congress and was signed into law by President Trump on March 23.
“This bill strengthens programs that are essential to the economic health of rural America while also emphasizing the need to continue pursuing innovative solutions to future energy and economic needs,” NRECA CEO Jim Matheson said of the measure, which keeps the federal government running through Sept. 30, the end of fiscal 2018.
One key provision provides a boost to electric co-ops that want to bring broadband to their members. The bill authorizes $600 million for the Agriculture Department to make loans and grants for rural broadband, which Matheson called “a positive step towards connecting the rural economy and closing the digital divide.”
“High costs and low population density remain the biggest obstacles to expanding rural broadband access,” said Matheson.
Other provisions benefiting electric co-op operations include $5.5 billion for the Agriculture Department’s electric loan program. Co-ops that borrow to make infrastructure improvements repay the government with interest.
The bill will streamline government red tape that impedes the ability of electric co-ops to manage vegetation near utility rights of way on public lands. Better land management access will allow co-ops to bolster system reliability.
There’s also funding for cybersecurity research and development—a key ingredient as co-ops work to stay ahead of evolving cyber threats. The Cybersecurity for Energy Delivery Systems (CEDS), from which NRECA currently receives funding for the Rural Cooperative Cybersecurity Capabilities Program (RC3), went from $62 million to $75 million.
LIHEAP, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, will receive $3.64 billion, up from the current $3.39 billion. The increase follows the annual LIHEAP Action Day on March 13, which NRECA supported, and the March 16 release of a bipartisan letter, signed by 171 House members, urging “no less than $4.7 billion” in LIHEAP funding for fiscal 2019.
The spending bill is also notable for what’s not included. Congress opposed a Trump administration proposal to sell off the transmission assets of three federal Power Marketing Administrations. The bill also avoids drastic cuts to the Rural Economic Development Loan & Grant Program (REDLG).
Michael W. Kahn is a staff writer at NRECA.