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What is important

The week of March 12 was an eventful one in Nashville, to say the least. More than 200 devoted directors and employees from Tennessee’s electric cooperatives were in the state capital to participate in the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association’s annual Legislative Conference, Day on the Hill and Legislative Reception. Taking time away from their busy schedules, these individuals heard from and talked with some of Tennessee’s most powerful governmental officials about the key issues impacting your local community — and your member-owned electric co-op. I had the privilege of coordinating these two very full days, but fortunately I was unable complete all of the activities myself. I’ll get to that in a minute.

The events began when Gov. Bill Haslam addressed the group. “It is an honor to travel around the state and meet people who really do care about their communities, and you all represent businesses that do that,” said Gov. Haslam. “You really are trying your best to provide a service that people need at the lowest possible cost. I am grateful for what you are doing.”

Rather than merely speaking to the conference attendees, the governor asked a pretty simple question: What do we think his job is? Or, stated differently, what should he be doing to best perform his job as the chief executive of state government? Answers to his question spawned discussion about job recruitment, energy policy, environmental protections and the role and function of state government. Haslam discussed his initiatives to modernize state government, especially its employment practices, in order to provide the best services for the lowest cost.

At the conclusion of his time, it was our honor to present the governor a special copy of “Barns of Tennessee,” a popular book that features photos — most of which were submitted by the readers of this magazine — of some of Tennessee’s most picturesque farms and barns.

During the conference, TECA staff explained to co-op directors and employees how this year’s redrawing of House and Senate districts is impacting the representation of rural and suburban Tennessee in both the State Legislature and Congress. Because growth in urban areas of the state has been greater than that of rural regions, the balance of power in the General Assembly is shifting due to these demographic changes. We stressed that it is important to recognize these changes and be proactive in our efforts to ensure that your co-op remains strong for the future.

State Sen. Jack Johnson of Franklin provided an update on the priorities of the Senate, specifically the activities of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Labor and Agriculture. Sen. Johnson is the chairman of this very important committee, which has broad jurisdiction over many issues, including most that impact the operations of your local cooperative. He approaches his duty very seriously and is responsible for maintaining the civility and fairness of the debates that take place in the committee. We believe he does an excellent job running the committee and appreciate his willingness to answer the tough questions.

Attendees were also briefed on pending legislation that would impact Tennessee’s electric cooperatives. The common theme among all the bills that were discussed is the unique way in which your cooperative operates — through you, the owner. Our association becomes concerned when legislation would limit a board’s ability to act in the best interests of its members. We believe that our cooperative governance structure provides the most effective way to operate a nonprofit business because you elect the directors who set the cooperative’s policies. Cooperative members are best served when these local policies are made by local board members elected to run the co-op. This locally controlled business model nearly eliminates the need for the state or federal government to be involved in the cooperative’s affairs.

Armed with this information, the attendees then set out to meet with their legislators to help them better understand electric cooperatives and the specific pending legislation that impacts our ability to provide safe, reliable, affordable energy.

The primary issue facing electric cooperatives this year is nothing new — pole attachments. Electric utilities charge cable TV and telephone providers when they attach their wires to electric poles. Think of this like rent — your cooperative owns a house, but the cable and telephone company wants to rent out a room in the house. However, renting a room makes the cost of living in the house higher because that additional renter uses more of the house’s resources (electricity, heating and cooling, water, etc). You might even have to get a bigger house just to accommodate all the extra renters.

Cable and telephone companies believe that government should mandate that this “rent” be lower. Much lower. But co-ops know they charge fair rates that are based on the actual cost of buying, installing and maintaining a pole. These costs are then spread out among everybody who is sharing the pole. Pretty simple, huh?

Thankfully, the members of Tennessee’s legislature have seen the efforts to regulate pole attachments for what they are: an attempt to get a free ride. During this year’s Legislative Conference, our attendees were able to see presentations from both sides of this issue given to Chairman Johnson and the Senate Commerce Committee during a committee session. While no vote was taken that day, the result was clear: Electric cooperatives and their locally elected boards are doing what is right for their communities.

I wasn’t there to help present the arguments to the Senate Commerce Committee. And as I mentioned at the beginning of this column, I’m thankful I wasn’t. Just an hour or two before the presentation began, I was at Baptist Hospital with my wife, welcoming our fourth son into the world. Mom and baby Drew are doing great. God has blessed me with a great job, but an even better family.

Patience is a virtue

Mike Knotts, Director of Government Affairs for the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association

For years, I’ve heard the saying, “Patience is a virtue.” I’m not sure I’ve ever really thought about what that means. Have you? I just hear it, reflexively agree with it and move on to the next thing. Just another cliché, something that people say.

According to Wikipedia, “A virtue is a positive trait or quality subjectively deemed to be morally excellent and thus is valued as a foundation of principle and good moral being.” I know Wikipedia might not be the most authoritative source, but I think this entry passes the smell test. So, if I actually believe that definition, do I live in such a way that demonstrates patience? After all, actions speak louder than words — as we’ve always been told. Does our society really value patience?

In my opinion, it is undeniable that we are an instant-gratification nation. Fast food, ATMs, disposable diapers, digital cameras — all are incredible luxuries that have without doubt shortened our attention spans. I work in an industry that literally changed the world — but where patience is defined in milliseconds. Our margin for error is so slim. When you flip the switch, you expect the lights to come on. If the power stops flowing for just a second, all those digital clocks start blinking “12:00,” and the phone calls start pouring in to your co-op.

And these were only 20th century changes. The Internet has exponentially increased our ability to demand more and more information in less and less time.

For example, I am a voracious consumer of news. I have a need to stay connected to current events but see very little of it on television anymore. The 5 o’clock news has not been a part of my routine since I was in high school. I might read the newspaper to learn more detail of a major story, but almost never do I learn about it for the first time in the pages of my local daily. Most of my news comes to me now in near-real time through websites, email updates and social media like Twitter.

These advancements are not bad things; they are just changes. It’s hard to argue against the value of societal advancement. Take the automobile, for instance. Just because we’ve been trained to expect to cross the state in a matter of hours instead of days doesn’t mean we are impatient. We might be getting less patient in some of the ways we live our lives, but those changes by in large have enriched us and made us a more comfortable and prosperous people.

But what about those things that still require us to exercise patience? Parenthood has certainly put me to the test. I have three young sons, including 4-year-old twins, so there has been no shortage of opportunities to demonstrate my patience. Or, more appropriately, my lack thereof. I have to constantly remind myself that I can’t expect my boys to perfect a new task the first time, and I can’t expect them to grow without a lot of stumbles along the way.

When I arrive at the office, I again face the same struggles. It is my job to get involved in the details of how your elected representatives write the law. And the legislative process can sometimes be slow and arduous, it can sometimes be quick and haphazard, but it always requires careful diligence. However, it can be easy to sometimes jump to premature conclusions and not do the hard work that is necessary to make good decisions and accurate judgments.

Case in point: As a lobbyist, there are some lawmakers on whom you just come to rely. Experience has shown you time and time again that they are supportive of your organization and what it stands for, and when it comes time to cast a vote, they usually make the right decision. So what do you do when they suddenly reverse course and do something that could be incredibly harmful to the things you care about?

This happened to me recently. I could not believe the name when I read it at the top of the page. Someone I had come to rely upon suddenly appeared to be in opposition to the interests of electric cooperatives. Why? My first reaction was to take decisive action. Fire up the engines, and let’s head off to battle.

But wait a minute: Why would someone change their position when the circumstances surrounding that issue have not changed? Why would someone embrace a multimillion-dollar impact to our industry that would cause electric bills for almost all Tennesseans to unnecessarily rise? There had to be a reason. So I made a decision that flies in the face of our impatient, 24-hour news cycle culture. I decided to wait until I could actually talk to the person and determine what their motives might be.

So far, that decision has been a good one — both for my virtue and the interests of the member-owners of Tennessee’s electric cooperatives. There was a reason, and my first reaction would have made the situation much worse. So don’t forget: If patience truly is a virtue, then it just stands to reason that good things come to those who wait!

Decennial decisions

Mike Knotts, Director of Government Affairs for the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association

One man. One vote. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. Every citizen in the U.S. has the right to equal representation.

We may take this principle for granted, but it is one of the cornerstones of our form of government, a representative republic. What makes our system of government different from a democracy, however, is that our votes are cast in order to elect an individual who will represent us in a legislative body that deliberates and decides the people’s business. Our own vote does not directly decide the issue being debated.

So that means every American has a number of elected officials who represent them. At the federal level you are represented by two U.S. senators who are elected by the citizens of an entire state.You are also represented by one U.S. representative (frequently referred to as a congressman), who is elected to represent one of 435 geographical districts across the nation.These districts are apportioned in such a way that each district contains approximately the same number of citizens.

At the state level, you are represented by one state senator and one state representative. These individuals each represent differing geographic districts that contain a proportional number of the state’s citizens. Local governments are organized in a similar fashion, although there are differing methods by which they operate depending on the makeup of individual counties and cities.

While the news media today tends to pay lots of attention to the president of the United States or the goings- on of the Congress, the fact that state legislatures have the responsibility of determining how the representative districts are drawn is sometimes overlooked. Every 10 years, after completion of the U.S. Census, state representatives and senators take on the task of reapportioning the districts to guarantee equal representation for the people. They determine the boundaries for the U.S. House of Representatives districts in their states in addition to the State Senate and House lines.

While every district must be proportional in population to the other districts, are there a number of different ways to draw the lines to come up with an equal result?You bet. Does that mean politics may influence the outcome?You bet! Is that a bad thing? Well, assuming equal representation is achieved, no, I don’t believe so.

The General Assembly recently completed the process of redistricting the nine Congressional districts, 33 State Senate districts and 99 State House districts in Tennessee. This reapportionment was different, as it was the first time in history that the Republican Party has controlled the state Legislature during the process. However, the timing of the process was very similar to previous reapportionments.

There were certainly some winners and losers in the design of the districts. House Republican Leader Gerald McCormick told tnreport.com, “Any time you have 99 politicians carving up anything, you’re going to have some controversy, so I expect there will be some creative tension.” It would be impossible to please everyone’s wishes for how to draw the lines, and some in our state were indeed not happy. As former Speaker of the House Jimmy Naifeh was quoted (I can only assume tongue-in-cheek), “Just because I did it doesn’t make it right.” Well, like it or not, politics is a part of our governing process, and the party in control will certainly choose alternatives that benefit its vision for governance.

As an organization whose interests are primarily rural and suburban, we at the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association are very interested in how these new districts will impact our ability to promote policies that keep your cooperative strong. Tennessee’s population has changed over the past 10 years, and the population growth in urban areas has been faster than that of our rural communities. Will this demographic shift make it more difficult to advocate for our electric co-op member- owners? Time will tell for sure, but an objective analysis shows that the maps appear to be drawn fairly and with an attempt to group together communities of like interest. Will some of our strongest supporters be impacted by these changes? Your votes at the ballot box will determine the answer to that question.

Because the new districts will take effect upon the conclusion of — not before — the November 2012 election, I encourage you learn what districts you live in.Maps are available on our website, www.tnelectric.org.

So what does all of this mean to you? This is an election year, and this fall when you go to the polls to vote (you are registered to vote, right?), you may very well find that you live in a new district or the person you are accustomed to representing you will be changing.

Spreading Mayberry ideals on Capitol Hill

Mike Knotts, Director of Government Affairs for the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association

I love “The Andy Griffith Show.” That’s not exactly breaking news, I know. It’s only one of the most popular television shows in history. And I suppose having a father whose name is Don Knotts may have helped pique my interest many years ago. But few can disagree that there is just something about that program that resonates with people across America.

While my father was not the actor who played the iconic Barney Fife, I do relish the thought of life in Mayberry. Life was simple, doors were not locked, people helped one another during hard times, Aunt Bee’s cooking was the best (except for those pickles!) And occasionally the Darlings rolled into town to pick a song or two.

Over the past couple of years I have enjoyed exposing my three young boys to Andy and Opie and the rest of the characters. Sometimes they get a history lesson. “Dad, why does Barney have to ask Sarah to call the diner? Why doesn’t he just use his iPhone?” Sometimes they learn a great moral lesson about telling the truth or the consequences of unethical or unlawful behavior. Sometimes they see how important it is to serve others — can you think of a single episode where Andy Taylor does anything for his own gain? And sometimes they just laugh at Barney’s wide-eyed look of frustration when something else didn’t work the way he planned.

Yes, I love “The Andy Griffith Show.”

And while I readily admit that the world we live in is much different than Mayberry, couldn’t we all learn a little bit from it? I think so. Honesty, integrity and selflessness are not character traits that we readily associate with our political leaders of late, but I can tell you that those qualities still exist — and in great supply. But then again, maybe our world isn’t that different from Mayberry. For real fans of the show, you might recall that Mayor Stoner had a hard time respecting the separation of powers between the mayor and sheriff — that is, until a black bear and ornery bull taught him otherwise.

I’ve been involved in politics and government for more than 15 years now, and my experience has ranged from stuffing envelopes for political candidates to serving on the staff of a member of Congress as well as being appointed by the president of the United States to a position in his administration. I’ve seen a lot of good people working very hard for the future of this country and, yes, even a Mayor Stoner or two.

So when I came to work for the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association a little less than one year ago, I was given the responsibility of protecting the interests of Tennessee’s electric cooperatives before both the state and federal governments — no small task, but one I have readily accepted.

As a member-owner of an electric cooperative, you share a unique experience with about 1 million other rural and suburban Tennesseans. You don’t just buy your power from your local co-op; you own your local co-op! The reality of that statement is that you are an owner of a business that is critical to our modern society, is technically complex, requires lots of money to build and operate and is a vital part of our communities. Oh, and the product you sell can kill you if not handled properly. This is serious business!

So it is only natural that the activities of your cooperative are frequently the subject of proposed new laws or government regulations. As these changes are proposed and debated in Washington, D.C., and Nashville, we will always advocate positions that keep your cooperative strong and able to provide safe, reliable and affordable energy to your home and business. And we will do what it takes to ensure that the millions of voices of our association are both heard and respected.

As I have been telling electric cooperative employees across the state, we have a unique responsibility to help guide our lawmakers to sound energy policies. Our association takes this responsibility seriously. I look forward to using this column as well as our website at www.tnelectric.org over the years to come to keep you informed about these issues.

Hopefully our editorial oversight will better than the Mayberry Sun, Opie’s newspaper that focused on Mayberry gossip.