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Focus on key issues as new Congress convenes

While the American Public Power Association is working hard to ensure that public power's voice is heard in the early days of the Trump administration, we are also keeping a close eye on action further up Pennsylvania Avenue on Capitol Hill.

A new Congress got underway in early January and committees in both chambers experienced changes in leadership, as well as member additions.

The Association has made it a priority to proactively reach out to key players in the Trump administration so that they understand the priorities of the public power community. Indeed, we started this work during the transition phase prior to President Trump being sworn into office on Jan. 20. President Trump's cabinet nominees are another area of focus for the Association.

While the Association's work on the executive branch front is extremely important, we also know that we can't afford to take our eye off of the legislative ball.

One way that we can accomplish this, with the help of our members, is through the Association's annual legislative rally in Washington, D.C.

This year's rally will take place from Feb. 27 through March 1, where a number of key federal policy issues will be discussed including maintaining tax-exempt financing and grid security (Additional information about the rally is available on the Association's website).

Rally attendees will have the opportunity to meet with their congressional delegations on Capitol Hill and attend policy briefings on specific issues hosted by the Association.

The congressional lay of the land

So what is the lay of the land in the new Congress?

The 115th Congress got underway on Jan. 3 and the top leadership positions in the Senate and House remain largely unchanged from the 114th Congress.

In the Senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., remains majority leader, while Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has taken the reins as minority leader in the Senate after Harry Reid, D-Nev., retired.

In the House, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was re-elected as Speaker of the House, while Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was re-elected as minority leader by the House Democratic Caucus. She defeated Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, by a vote of 134-63 to remain in her post.

Tax-exempt financing and changes to key committees

Maintaining access to tax-exempt municipal bond financing remains of paramount importance to public power.

In remarks at a Jan. 31 event in Washington, D.C., Sue Kelly, president and CEO of the Association, said that tax reform is a big agenda item in Congress this year and also a big concern for the Association because the primary financing tool that public power utilities use to construct new infrastructure is tax-exempt financing.

Any time you get tax reform there's a certain number of what we call 'pay fors' that are on the table," Kelly noted at the U.S. Energy Association event. "The charitable deduction is one of them," she said. Mortgage interest deduction is another and "deductibility of interest from state and local bonds is always" on the list.

The Association is already working with a broad array of other local and state government groups to highlight the benefits of tax-exempt financing. Kelly is on the executive committee of Municipal Bonds for America, a non-partisan coalition focused on explaining the many benefits of the traditional municipal bond market and highlighting the tax exemption that enables state and local governments to finance vital infrastructure at the lowest cost to their taxpayers.

"This is going to be the big issue for us this year," Kelly said at the USEA event.

She noted that Mick Cornett, the Republican mayor of Oklahoma City, Okla., has said that one cannot be for infrastructure and be against tax-exempt financing.

Kelly underscored the point that "so much of the infrastructure in the United States — not just poles and wires," but also roads, schools, sewers and water systems, are built with tax-exempt financing, "so that will be a big message from us this year."

She added that she was very pleased to see that when president-elect Trump met with the U.S. Conference of Mayors during the transition, "he told them that he supported tax-exempt financing. I was very relieved to hear that, as we all were, and we hope that that indeed turns out to be the case," Kelly said.

The key tax writing committees in Congress are the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee.

The Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee is Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, while the new ranking member of the committee is Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass. Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Mich., previously served as ranking member on Ways and Means.

New Ways and Means committee members in the 115th Congress from the majority include Reps. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., and Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla.

New minority Ways and Means members are Reps. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., Terri Sewell, D-Ala., Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., and Judy Chu, D-Calif. Chu fills the vacancy left by former Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., who was appointed by California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, to serve as the state's attorney general.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, remains chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, while Ron Wyden, D-Ore., continues in his role as ranking member of the committee.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is a new member of the Senate Finance Committee.

House Energy and Commerce Committee has a new chairman

In the House, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., in December was selected by the House Steering Committee as the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He defeated Reps. John Shimkus, R-Ill., and Joe Barton, R-Texas, for the position. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., served as chairman of the committee in the 114th Congress. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., continues in his role as ranking member on the committee.

Walden in early January welcomed the following four new Republican members to the House Energy and Commerce Committee: Reps. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., Ryan Costello, R-Pa., Tim Walberg, R-Mich., and Mimi Walters, R-Calif.

Walden also last month named the committee leadership, which includes Barton as vice-chairman of the committee, Upton as chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy, Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, as vice-chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy, Shimkus as chairman of the subcommittee on the Environment and Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., as vice-chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment.

Pelosi in January announced that Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-MI, Raul Ruiz, D-Calif. and Scott Peters, D-Calif., would join the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the 115th Congress.

Senate energy and environment committees

In the Senate, Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., continue in their respective roles as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and ranking member.

Freshmen Senators Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., have joined the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The Senate on Feb. 8 voted to approve Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to serve as attorney general. Sessions had been a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, so Republicans will now have a seat to fill on the committee.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., was selected to serve as chairman of the committee's Subcommittee on Water and Power.

This subcommittee is responsible for irrigation, reclamation projects, power marketing administrations, energy development impacts on water resources, groundwater resources and management, hydroelectric power, low head hydro, and energy related aspects of deepwater ports.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., is the new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He takes the committee's gavel from Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who remains a member of the committee.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., is the new ranking member on the committee. He replaces Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, who retired from Congress in 2016.

Boxer's California Senate seat was filled by Kamala Harris, a Democrat. Harris and Duckworth are both new members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Two new Republican members have joined the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in the 115th Congress: Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Jerry Moran of Kansas.

Sessions also served on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, so as with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, an open Republican seat will now be available on the environment committee.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Feb. 2 voted to approve the nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, President Trump's choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

Lawmakers take action on measures of importance to public power

The first month of the new Congress saw lawmakers approve legislation of importance to the Association and its members.

In January, the House passed the Commodity End-User Relief Act of 2017, sending the measure to the Senate. The bill, H.R. 238, is largely the same as the Commodity End-User Relief Act of 2015, although some changes were made to it during debate on the bill shortly before its passage.

The Association supported the underlying bill, but did not take a position on amendments offered during the debate.

In a Jan. 10 letter to House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and Committee Ranking Democrat Collin Peterson, D-Minn., Sue Kelly said the bill would "ensure that public power utilities can continue to make full use of financial tools necessary to keep electric power prices stable and affordable to our customers."

The bill would address public power concerns by codifying Commodity Futures Trading Commission rules allowing public power utilities to enter swaps with a full array of counterparties needed to hedge their commercial operations risks.

Meanwhile, in January the House also passed H.R. 587, the Fair Ratepayer Accountability, Transparency, and Efficiency Standards Act, or Fair RATES Act, by a voice vote.

This bill would ensure that where rate changes take effect because the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is deadlocked, parties still would have recourse to seek a review (and an appeal of that review) of the rate changes.

The legislation, introduced by Rep. Joseph Kennedy, D-Mass., is supported by the Association and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Identical legislation passed the House in the 114th Congress, but failed to advance in the Senate."