The cooperative principle of Concern for Community drives our response to the pandemic
BY KEVIN CONDON
Life is undoubtedly different from a year ago. At this time last year, the pages of this magazine highlighted a productive Iowa legislative session and another successful fly-in to Washington, D.C., to advocate on behalf of Iowa’s electric cooperatives and the 650,000 member-consumers we serve. We discussed tweaks to the tax code that help you, a co-op member-consumer, save more money by restoring the Iowa geothermal tax credit. We described our (eventually successful) effort to convince Congress to fix an oversight from previous legislation that would have put your cooperative’s not-for-profit status in jeopardy.
This year, all of that “normal” advocacy news is on hold. The Iowa Legislature stopped meeting in mid-March with weeks of uncertainty about when it would reconvene. It wasn’t until mid-May that plans were announced to resume the session in early June. While Congress has continued to meet during the pandemic, their time has been dominated by how best to equip Americans to withstand the medical and economic impacts of COVID-19. As decision-makers in D.C. scrambled to respond to the unraveling situation, restrictions have been placed on nearly every corner of the country, affecting just about every aspect of daily life.
Throughout it all, our advocacy has never shifted from what we focus on in good times and bad: you, the member-consumer. Everything Iowa’s electric cooperatives do in the public policy arena is rooted in the fact that without you, there is no cooperative, there is no community to provide power to, no economy to support. Your locally owned cooperative stayed true to its core mission of providing you reliable and affordable power. Likewise, our outreach to Iowa’s elected officials at all levels of government has not wavered from those same goals. Making sure that we keep the lights on is always our highest priority.
Working with Iowa’s ag leaders
Your electric cooperative is speaking with lawmakers to make sure they understand that the best way for them to help the electric co-ops and Iowa’s rural economy is to help you. The cooperative principle of “Concern for Community” has been driving our response to the pandemic every day.
In rural Iowa, we grow corn and soybeans. We raise cattle, pigs and poultry. The agriculture economy is woven into the fabric of every county in the state. When ag struggles, Iowa struggles. In addition to farms and homes, Iowa’s electric co-ops provide power to many commercial and industrial facilities, such as biofuels plants, meat and poultry processing facilities, and the by-product businesses directly tied to those industries. The stability of those installations provides strong markets that many member-consumers can depend on. The ripple effects from disruptions are felt throughout the supply chain. A near collapse can be devastating.
In May, a group of upper Midwest statewide electric cooperative associations and their member cooperatives penned a letter to the region’s members of Congress urging additional support for the rural economy by adhering to the nation’s Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS). They asked Congressional representatives to reject additional waivers from the Environmental Protection Agency, which would further erode demand for ethanol at a time when fewer gas tanks are being filled. The letter also highlights the gut-wrenching decision that many farmers have had to make in euthanizing cattle and pigs as food processing industries have closed due to COVID-19 outbreaks. Congress and the Trump Administration must do more to help these markets. Coincidentally, this cooperative message was being delivered at about the time that a group of U.S. Senators, led by Iowa’s Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, sent two separate letters calling on the President to “uphold the RFS” and provide assistance to the pork industry, whose “crisis is immediate.”
In late May, Sens. Grassley and Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota) introduced legislation to support biofuel producers negatively affected by the pandemic. This legislation will require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reimburse biofuel producers for their feedstock purchases from Jan. 1, 2020, through March 31, 2020, through the Commodity Credit Corporation.
“The biofuels industry works directly with our farmers. And the current disruptions from the pandemic have created ripple effects, including steep declines in corn and soybean prices. We need to continue to support those farmers who feed and fuel our country and the world. This bill will help ensure biofuel producers survive this economic downturn and also ensure corn and soybean farmers have a place to sell their products,” Grassley says.
As the coronavirus pandemic spread, gasoline use in the U.S. plummeted to 50-year lows around the country. From March 8 to April 4 of this year, the total miles driven dropped by 58 percent. This rapid decrease in consumption led to more than 130 biofuel plants to partially or fully shut down.
“Grassley’s bill would provide much-needed relief for biofuels producers in the face of COVID-19 demand destruction. The pandemic hit Iowa’s biofuels industry hard and around 40 percent of the state’s ethanol production capacity remains offline,” says Iowa Renewable Fuels Association Executive Director Monte Shaw.
Calling advocates into action
The electric cooperatives’ grassroots program – known as Iowa Rural Power – launched a “Call to Action” for our advocates. The request encouraged Iowa lawmakers to continue focusing on getting communities served by electric cooperatives the critical assistance needed now while preparing for long-term aid.
We are hoping to amplify the strong message being delivered by our fellow rural-focused colleagues from groups, including the Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, Iowa Pork Producers Association, Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, Iowa Poultry Association and Iowa Egg Council.
Navigating a new normal
As Congress tackles the next phase of federal assistance to COVID-19 and as the Iowa Legislature reconvenes to address statewide impacts, your local electric cooperative will insist that the government’s response be focused on member-consumers and protecting your way of life. We know that when member-consumers are healthy, the co-op is healthy. Embracing the words of President John F. Kennedy, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” we will continue to advocate for public policies that respond to the urgent needs of Iowa’s rural communities.
As we all discover the “new normal,” remember that your cooperative is there for you. If you are experiencing financial trouble in paying your utility bills in full, please reach out to your co-op to discuss payment options. If you’re able to help your fellow member-consumers meet that commitment, please reach out to your co-op to learn more about charitable opportunities.
You are our focus. You are our concern. You are the cooperative.
Kevin Condon is the director of government relations for the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives.