By his reckoning, Steele-Waseca Cooperative Electric’s Sydney Briggs has been to about nine NRECA legislative conferences during his 25 years in the co-op movement.
He knows that face-to-face time with legislators and their aides never gets old.
“The representatives see the same people every year, so they know we’re dedicated,” said Briggs, CEO of the Owatonna, Minnesota, co-op.
He was one of 60 co-op leaders from Minnesota at the 2017 NRECA Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. The group was waiting for Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., in a dark-paneled hearing room in the Longworth House Office Building.
“If you continue to tell your story and get them to relate to you, they’ll listen,” Briggs said. “Slow inroads year after year are more effective than a one-and-you’re-done visit.”
While the aim of the congressional visits is to put co-op concerns before lawmakers, this year’s event also had moments of applause for representatives for their long-time support.
The Minnesota group helped honor Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson with the NRECA Distinguished Service Award. NRECA CEO Jim Matheson presented the award to the 13-term lawmaker, who got a standing ovation.
“From my perspective, he’s never forgotten why he’s here,” said Matheson, who served with Peterson as a member of Congress from 2001 to 2015.
“He’s always been there to represent the people back home. You could say that I patterned myself after him,” Matheson added, noting that others in Congress saw him as a role model, too.
“Thank you for what you do back home,” Peterson told co-ops. “We are doing what we can to keep you going and keep things in line.”
Peterson has stood strong with co-ops on several issues, said Darrick Moe, CEO of the Minnesota Rural Electric Association in Maple Grove.
Among those issues: coordinating House support for Rural Utilities Service funding; asking the Environmental Protection Agency for more compliance time during the rollout of the Clean Power Plan; and backing efforts to preserve the use of large-capacity electric water heaters in load-control programs.
“In general, he is very supportive of virtually all of our priorities and routinely crosses party lines to support rural electric cooperative positions,” said Moe.
Delegates from South Carolina co-ops ended their Capital Hill visits by thanking Rep. James Clyburn for his unflagging support of the Rural Energy Savings Program.
Since 2010, the third-highest ranking Democrat has championed the program, which was signed into law in 2014 as part of the Farm Bill. On April 21, the Department of Agriculture released $13 million through the program to seven South Carolina co-ops for zero-interest loans to help 1,250 members make energy-efficiency improvements to homes.
While Clyburn couldn’t attend the ceremony because of a minor illness, co-op delegates warmly welcomed Craig Link, his legislative assistant.
Link thanked co-ops for being “willing to put in the extra work to find consumers who really needed help. It takes effort. You’ve got to drive down rural roads.”
The last day of the 2017 NRECA Legislative Conference paid off for the Minnesota delegates’ wait for Walz. Dressed in casual attire, the six-term representative rushed in a few minutes late, having just stepped off a delayed flight.
Noting the presence of “old friends,” the lawmaker told delegates he’s proud of their work to help make Minnesota a leader in renewable energy.
“I look to you for feedback on what’s going to work,” said Walz, who is not seeking re-election in order to run for Minnesota governor next year. “Each of you works in our communities, sitting on boards, doing it day in and day out … to find new and innovative ways to deliver that power.”
Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer at NRECA.