Not unlike other American businesses and institutions, our Federal and state legislative bodies have been working to adapt to the “new normal” that coronavirus has created. While Congress has continued to meet sporadically throughout this period of social distancing, sometimes even voting by utilizing unanimous consent procedures, the State Legislature recessed in Mid-march and put all of its work on hold.
Importantly for cooperatives, the Congress has created several new programs to help those impacted by COVID-19.
The CARES Act provided an additional $900M of funding for the LIHEAP program, which provides direct cash payments to help individuals pay their energy bills. These funds are ultimately administered through local non-profits or government agencies. To see which agencies serve your communities, click here. If your cooperative is experiencing an increase in late payments, underpayments, or non payment of bills we encourage you to proactively reach out to your affected members and provide contact information for these local LIHEAP agencies.
An additional creation of the CARES Act was the Paycheck Protection Program. This new initiative of the Small Business Administration was established to allow certain businesses to access low-interest loans that would allow their business to continue operating and paying employees despite economic uncertainty. If the money is used for payroll, rent/mortgage, and utility expenses then the loan can be forgiven – essentially turning the loan into a grant.
Congress has allocated over $600 billion to this program. As of this writing, approximately $100B remains available for affected parties. If your cooperative is working with commercial and industrial customers who have been affected by the pandemic, this program is a excellent resource to ensure they have available funds to pay their electric bill.
Additionally, the Small Business Administration has confirmed that electric cooperatives are themselves eligible to participate in the PPP, assuming the meet the self certification requirements of all borrowers. Learn more about PPP by clicking here (https://www.sba.gov/funding-programs/loans/coronavirus-relief-options/paycheck-protection-program).
Conversation in Washington now centers around whether or not Congress will enact additional relief or economic stimulus in response to COVID-19. The House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act on May 15, which would allocate an additional $3 Trillion to both existing and new relief-oriented programs. However, the Senate is unlikely to approve this specific legislation and negotiations about any potential compromise have been slow to begin.
NRECA is working with lawmakers to address several priorities in the next bill, should one come to fruition. Those priorities include not enacting a nationwide moratorium on disconnects due to nonpayment of bills, reduction of interest rates and expanded lending from the Rural Utility Service, additional Federal assistance to assist with end user payment of energy bills, broadband funding and FEMA assistance for disaster response.
Back in Nashville, the legislature is returning from its recess this week to complete its session and adjourn for the year. While the House and the Senate are taking differing approaches to this final run to the finish line, it is highly unlikely that any legislation that TECA was working to promote or oppose will be considered before adjournment. Most Capitol watchers seem to believe that several cuts to the previously approved budget for next year will be enacted and the session will then conclude.
Governor Lee has been exercising additional power and authority under the declared state of emergency, and co-ops rightly continue to be classified as essential businesses. This allows our continued operation during the various levels of stay at home orders and business closures of the past several months.
A recent change to a state program to assist with childcare for essential workers was positive for cooperatives. The COVID-19 Essential Employee Child Care Payment Assistance Program will provide payments directly to child care providers so that essential workers can remain on the job. Utility employees were initially left of the list of eligible employee categories, but Governor Lee recently announced a change. To learn more, please click here (https://www.tn.gov/humanservices/covid-19/child-care-services-and-covid-19.html).