Co-op Voices, Part 2: How Losing Tax-Exempt Status Would Hurt Rural America

Inside Passage Electric Cooperative is creating a new hydropower project in Kake, Alaska, in an effort to lower rates and replace diesel power with renewable energy. (Photo Courtesy: Inside Passage Electric Cooperative)

After years of dealing with roller-coaster diesel prices, Inside Passage Electric Cooperative in southeast Alaska is investing in hydropower to lower rates for its 1,300 members and bring cleaner energy to the rural communities it serves.

The co-op’s latest project will turn an unused dam on the remote island village of Kake into a source of power for about 600 people, many of them Alaska Natives. It’s the second hydropower project undertaken by IPEC, which plans another two as it moves toward 70% renewable energy.

But the nearly $7 million in state and federal grants that are helping the Juneau-based co-op reach its goals could also strip the not-for-profit business of its tax-exempt status and thwart its effort to reduce rates.

That’s because a 2017 tax bill passed by Congress redefined government grants to co-ops as non-member income, making it difficult for co-ops to avoid going over the 15% limit on outside revenue to keep their tax-exempt status. If they must start paying taxes, many co-ops will be forced to raise electric rates—often in high-poverty communities that can least afford higher energy costs.

“We’re trying to reduce fossil fuel consumption and reduce rates to our members,” said IPEC CEO Jodi Mitchell. “Now this tax issue is going to undo all the good we’ve tried to do. It’s very unfair that we’re being punished for trying to do the right thing. Congress has just got to fix it.”

Mitchell and leaders at the nation’s electric co-ops are urging lawmakers to vote before year’s end to pass the RURAL Act, a bipartisan bill that would allow co-ops to accept grants without risking their tax-exempt status. The legislation had 280 House co-sponsors and 45 in the Senate as of Nov. 12.

Co-op leaders hope that IPEC’s situation, and the stories that follow, will shed light on the harmful impact of the tax law on rural residents:

Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas in August 2017, causing widespread flooding and 130 mph winds that knocked out power for more than a week to members of Victoria Electric Cooperative. (Photo Courtesy: Victoria Electric Cooperative)

Hurricane Recovery in Texas

When Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas with 130 mph winds and more than 20 inches of rainfall, it knocked out power to all 22,467 meters served by Victoria Electric Cooperative. With help from 300 employees of neighboring co-ops and contractors, the co-op restored electricity to 95% of its service area within 10 days. More than 630 poles and nearly 260 transformers had to be replaced.

The co-op’s recovery efforts after the 2017 storm were aided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which provided more than $8 million in disaster relief this year. To qualify for those funds, the co-op had to spend about $890,000 of its own money and take out loans for about $420,000 more, costing members a total of about $1.3 million.

By accepting the FEMA grants to restore its system, Victoria EC is facing the loss of its tax-exempt status and a tax liability that could be as much as $850,000.

At its recent annual meeting, about 150 co-op members signed up to support the RURAL Act, said CEO Blaine Warzecha. But so far, Texas Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz have not signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.

“Without the FEMA grants, we’d still have had to repair the system,” Warzecha said. “We would already have had to have a rate increase, no doubt about it … Now we may have to have one anyway to pay for our taxes. Our members are going to end up footing the bill unless we get help from Congress.”

Broadband Service in Tennessee

Forked Deer Electric Cooperative in Halls, Tennessee, was thrilled to learn in October that it was the first recipient in the nation of a rural broadband grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new ReConnect program.

But the co-op’s joy faded when leaders realized that the $2.8 million grant might cost them their tax-exempt status.

“We’re all excited, and then a week later I get a call from one of my colleagues asking me what we’re going to do about the tax issue,” said CEO Jeff Newman. “I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ When he told me, it was a real punch in the gut.”

Newman said the co-op wants to use the federal grant to bring high-speed internet service to the part of its service area that is the most sparsely populated and the least connected. Now he is trying to figure out a way to draw down the grant money more slowly, so that it won’t push the co-op over the 15% limit for non-member revenue in any one year.

“All of our members have these high hopes for broadband, and we don’t want to let them down,” he said. “A middle-aged woman came into our office the other day and cried because she can now do online schooling and change her lot in life. We’re realizing broadband has life-changing impacts for our members … We don’t need obstacles from the federal government.”

Northwestern Electric Cooperative in Oklahoma is using FEMA funds to strengthen its system after an ice storm cut off electricity to its members for about a month. (Photo Courtesy: Northwestern Electric Cooperative)

Building a Stronger System in Oklahoma

After a brutal ice storm in 2017, it took 30 days for Northwestern Electric Cooperative in Woodward, Oklahoma, to restore power, with 400 lineworkers from throughout the region working around the clock. More than 6,000 poles and 100 miles of wire had gone down in the storm.

The FEMA aid that the co-op received to help restore power came before the tax law change, so it didn’t affect the co-op’s tax-exempt status. But the co-op is now at risk because this year it began receiving nearly $54 million in FEMA grants for a $72 million, three-year project to strengthen its system so that it will be better able to withstand future storms. CEO Tyson Littau said the grants will put the co-op over the 15% non-member limit.

“Do we rebuild and try to strengthen our distribution system and pay the taxes, or do we delay the mitigation project that would improve 1,200 miles of line throughout our territory?” he said. “I think we have a responsibility to the membership to improve the system for the future.”

Snowstorm Recovery in Oregon

When a record-breaking snowstorm hit Oregon in late February, Lane Electric Cooperative in Eugene sustained $5.6 million in damage to a system that serves 10,000 members.

With the help of FEMA grants, the co-op will rebuild its system and make it more resilient against future threats, said CEO Debi Wilson. But the co-op could also lose its tax-exempt status in the process, she said. Lane is currently working with tax advisers to see what tax liability it might face and whether a rate hike will be needed, Wilson said.

“We need things to go back to the way they were before the 2017 tax law,” she said. “Right now, FEMA funds aren’t functioning the way they were intended. They are supposed to take the burden off of our members, not add to their burden.”

Read more coverage of the RURAL Act:

Co-op Voices, Part 1: How Losing Tax-Exempt Status Would Hurt Rural Residents

RURAL Act: Why Popular, Bipartisan Legislation Can Face Hurdles in Congress

Q&A: Senate’s Lead RURAL Act Sponsors Discuss Their Strategy for Passage

As Majority of House Signs On to RURAL Act, Lead Sponsors Press for Vote

Q&A: RURAL Act’s Lead House Sponsors Say Co-op Voices Are Key to Bill’s Success

Co-op CEO to Congress: Help Expand Rural Broadband by Passing RURAL Act

NRECA CEO Jim Matheson: ‘If We All Stand Up,’ Co-ops Can Save Tax-Exempt Status

Co-op Advocacy Needed to Move Vital Tax Fix in Congress

Bipartisan Bill Would Protect Co-ops From Losing Tax-Exempt Status

Listen to a recent podcast on the RURAL Act:

Erin Kelly is a staff writer at NRECA.