Electric cooperatives scored key wins in a $1.1 trillion spending bill that, among other things, boosted Rural Utilities Service funding, sidelined the “Cadillac tax” until 2020, improved cyber security information sharing, and delayed federal listing of the greater sage grouse.
Electric co-ops scored several key wins in the spending bill that cleared Congress and was signed by the president.
Congress passed and President Obama signed the bill on Dec. 18 to keep government funded through fiscal year 2016, which runs through September.
“We are grateful to lawmakers for recognizing the importance of funding programs important to America’s electric co-ops,” said NRECA interim CEO Jeffrey Connor.
“This bill contains critical funding and policy provisions that will ultimately enable not-for-profit, member-owned electric cooperatives to continue providing 42 million Americans with affordable, safe and reliable electricity.”
The package increases RUS Electric Loan Program funds by $500 million for a total of $5.5 billion in fiscal 2016. The Guaranteed Underwriter Program was funded at $750 million, up $250 million from the previous year, while the Rural Economic Development Loan & Grant funding at $33 million remained at the same level. LIHEAP funding came in at nearly $3.4 billion.
The Cooperative Development Program will receive $11 million in fiscal 2016. NRECA has partnered with the program for some 50 years on international electrification projects.
“We are proud to have used the co-op model to bring electricity to millions of people around the world through the CDP,” said Connor.
Electric co-ops, which provide healthcare coverage to more than 100,000 employees, got a two-year delay from Congress on the “Cadillac tax,” a 40 percent excise tax on certain high-cost health plans. The tax had been set to take effect in 2018.
“This tax creates serious consequences for employees covered under quality and affordable health care plans, especially in rural communities where limited access to health care increases the cost of coverage,” said Connor. “It’s a burden that deserves to be repealed, and electric cooperatives applaud this postponement.”
The 2,000-plus-page bill also includes the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act of 2015, S. 754, which was backed by NRECA. It clarifies the information-sharing roles and responsibilities of the Department of Homeland Security and provides Freedom of Information Act and liability protections for those who voluntarily share cybersecurity threat data.
NRECA further welcomed the legislation’s ban on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listing the greater sage grouse as endangered or threatened in 2016. The bird nests in 11 western states where electric co-ops have been active participants in conservation plans.
“Electric cooperatives across the country have worked to develop conservation plans for various species that will protect wildlife without imposing unnecessary financial burdens on their members,” said Connor.
NRECA commended Congress for including a Reclamation Safety of Dams provision to shield existing customers of federal hydropower from costs of expansions that benefit new customers.
Congress also extended the residential and the business and commercial investment tax credits for solar and the production tax credit for wind through 2019. Solar projects are eligible for the credit when construction begins instead of when the unit goes into service.