Senator Todd Gardenhire (R – Chattanooga) has successfully moved Senate Bill 481 though the Senate. It passed by a vote of 27-5 on March 18. This legislation includes utility workers among other first responders and will subject offenders that commit assault against them to enhanced penalties.

The bill has also been approved by the House of Representatives. In a rare show of bi-partisan sponsorship in this General Assembly, Representative Darren Jernigan (D – Nashville) successfully shepherded the legislation with minimal opposition. Only Governor Lee’s signature remains for this change to become law.

“Linemen and other utility workers should certainly be counted among first responders in the communities they serve,” says Mike Knotts, vice president of government affairs for TECA. “This legislation shows the support that these community heroes have from their co-ops and from state lawmakers.”

The pace of activity in the 2019 General Assembly has peaked as many Committees have closed and bills are moving quickly toward the House and Senate floors. The focus of the legislature is shifting to formation of the state’s budget, and TECA will be working diligently to see that budget priorities that benefit electric co-ops are heard by the Finance committees.

Chief among them is funding of the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Grant Fund for which Governor Lee has proposed $20 million of new funds. In 2018, the Legislature increased Governor Haslam’s request by 50% in the final budget ($10 million proposed, $15 million funded). Key members of the Finance Committees have expressed interest in a similar increase for 2019, but additional funding is by no means assured.

TECA continues to track other important pieces of legislation moving through the 2019 General Assembly.

Increased Penalty for Illegal Drone Use

Senate Bill 306 by Senator Jon Lundberg (R – Bristol) and Representative Bud Hulsey (R – Kingsport) has been signed into law by Governor Bill Lee. 

This legislation increased the penalty to a Class E felony for operating a drone over a critical infrastructure facility without the consent of the owner. This makes a violation punishable by one to six years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000.

The law defines critical infrastructure facility to include “An electrical power generation system; electrical transmission system, either as a whole system or any individual component of the transmission system; or electrical distribution substation.”

It was previously a misdemeanor offense, which made enforcement of the violations a low priority of law enforcement. Should your cooperative feel the need to notify your local authorities of violations, you may now let the call center know that the crime is a felony and warrants dispatch of officers to investigate.

Cooperative Broadband Clarifications Passes House 81-8

Having already been passed by the Senate on a unanimous vote, House Bill 172 by Pat Marsh (R – Shelbyville) was considered by the House of Representatives on Monday, April 8. The bill clarifies elements of the Broadband Accessibility Act to encourage competition in co-op-served areas. After a brief discussion (Debate on the bill can be viewed here) the bill passed on a vote of 81–8.


NASHVILLE – Gov. Bill Lee announced Monday that five electric co-ops in Tennessee will receive more than $6.2 million in broadband accessibility grants. Electric co-ops received nearly half of $14.8 million in state grants awarded by the state.

“Rural and suburban Tennessee cannot grow and prosper without access to reliable, high-speed connectivity,” says David Callis, executive vice president and general manager for the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association. “Tennessee’s electric co-ops are responding to this need and making significant investments to bring this service to the homes and businesses they serve. The state’s broadband accessibility grant program speeds the process of expanding high-speed internet to communities that have no other options.”

“I am pleased to announce that we are getting our rural areas up to speed and expanding broadband in the areas that need it most,” said Lee. “I am committed to ensuring connectivity in every corner of our state as broadband impacts our goals for health care, education, economic development and beyond.”

According to the FCC’s 2018 Broadband Deployment Report, nearly one in four rural Tennesseans lack access to broadband. In addition to the $20 million included in Gov. Lee’s recommended budget for fiscal year 2020, these grants will continue to close the access gap ensuring rural Tennesseans have the tools needed for growth and prosperity.

The six Tennessee co-ops receiving a total of $6,296,177.61 in this round of state grants include:

  • Appalachian Electric Cooperative: $1,739,581 serving parts of Jefferson and Grainger Counties
  • Gibson Electric Membership Corporation: $588,974 serving the Gadsden Community in Crockett County and part of Gibson County
  • Meriwether Lewis Electric Cooperative: $1,832,728.16 serving part of Humphreys County
  • Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative: $817,406 serving the Griffith Creek community in Marion County
  • Volunteer Energy Cooperative: $1,317,488.45 serving the Spring Creek community in McMinn County

Learn more about electric co-op broadband in Tennessee on our Co-op Broadband page.

MLConnect making progress in project to service MLEC counties

Centerville, TN —  Ultra-fast, affordable, reliable broadband is getting closer for those receiving electricity from Meriwether Lewis Electric Cooperative.  The utility’s wholly-owned subsidiary, Meriwether Lewis Connect, LLC is preparing to serve its first customers.

Residents in and around the city of Waverly will be hearing from MLConnect by the end of March about firming orders and scheduling installations.

“We’re testing and working on processes to put our best technology and customer-care foot forward. We’re more interested in doing it right than hitting a deadline, so we aren’t announcing a live date at this time,” says MLEC President and CEO Keith Carnahan. “I can tell you this, though, it is exciting to be this close.”

Construction on the $60 million project began in Waverly in October 2018 and expects to be live with broadband and phone for all MLEC members by late 2022.  MLConnect’s Phase I includes more than 300 miles of main line fiber and helps secure a robust infrastructure is in place to serve the rural areas. 

Currently, construction continues in Hohenwald for a potential “go live” date in April.  By early March, construction crews will also be working in Centerville.  New Johnsonville, Erin, Tennessee Ridge, McEwen, Linden and Lobelville (in this order) are on schedule for service by the end of 2019.

When designing Phase II, construction costs, existing infrastructure, time constraints, etc. will be considered when selecting areas. Another factor is the amount of interest in each neighborhood (number of online registrations). This is why registering on www.mlconnect.com or at your local MLEC office is so important.

“Just as electricity did in 1939, MLConnect offering GIG services in our rural hometowns will bring unprecedented potential for education, healthcare, economic development and more,” says Carnahan.  “It’s proof you don’t have to live in a big city to be progressive.  MLConnect will offer world class broadband with hometown service, and we’re proud of that.”

To learn more, visit www.mlconnect.com or email customercare@mlconnect.com.

Gov. Bill Lee

NASHVILLE – On Wednesday, Gov. Bill Lee, in his first executive order, instructed all state agencies to examine and improve the way they serve Tennessee’s rural communities. The order emphasizes the need to coordinate efforts to better serve the state’s rural and economically disadvantaged counties.

In response to the executive order, David Callis, executive vice president and general manager of the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, made the following statement:

“Tennessee’s rural and suburban communities matter. Thirty-seven percent of the state’s population – some 2.4 million people – call rural Tennessee home, and these residents account for nearly 30 percent of personal incomes for the state. The contributions these families make to the overall success of Tennessee are significant. A healthy and vibrant rural economy is critical to the state’s overall growth and prosperity. Electric co-ops have deep roots in these communities, and we support the governor’s focus on issues that impact rural Tennessee.”

According to a release from the governor’s office, the executive order is the first step by the administration to accelerate plans to address 15 distressed counties, which are all rural. The order requires each executive department to submit, no later than May 31, 2019, a statement of rural impact explaining how the department serves rural Tennesseans. Departments must then provide recommendations for improving that service by June 30, 2019.

Tennessee’s electric cooperatives serve 71 percent of the state and more than 2.5 million consumers. The Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association provides leadership, advocacy and support for Tennessee’s 23 electric cooperatives. The association also publishes The Tennessee Magazine, the state’s most widely circulated periodical. Visit tnelectric.org or tnmagazine.org to learn more.

Last week, the 111th General Assembly of the state of Tennessee began its two-year session, and operative word for all Capitol-watchers is “new.” With so many first time members of the Legislature who are still learning about the legislative process and how best to represent their districts, Tennessee’s electric co-ops have work to do.

The upcoming TECA legislative conference, day on the hill, and legislative reception offer co-op Boards and staff a great opportunity to interact with legislators, both new and old, and engage in important public policy discussions. If your cooperative has not yet registered to attend, please do so. We look forward to seeing you there.

TECA’s public policy partner is the law firm of Bass, Berry, and Sims. They recently published a helpful and concise overview of the beginning of this General Assembly.

With the new session comes change not seen in Tennessee government in recent history, as over 30 new lawmakers were sworn in on the first day. Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) was again elected as Speaker of the Senate, and Glen Casada (R-Franklin) was elected to replace outgoing House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville). Harwell served as Speaker of the House for eight years.

Governor-elect Bill Lee (R-Franklin) will be sworn in on January 19, 2019. Lee’s first major task of the start of his first year will be to finalize his commissioner appointments and present his budget. Lee is expected to give his first State of the State address and release his budget on March 4, 2019.

Tennessee House Committee Updates

As Lee begins his work he will be working with all new leadership in the House. In addition to the new Speaker, Majority Leader and Caucus Leader, the House has brand new committees and committee chairs. There is sure to be an extended learning curve this session with so many new legislators and committee chairs. The list of committees and committee chairs for the House can be found here.

Tennessee Senate Committee Updates

In the Senate, there were fewer changes. No new committees were created in the Senate, but there are five new chairs of committees. The list of committees and committee chairs for the Senate can be found here.

After the inauguration, the Senate will take an additional week to organize before returning to business on January 28, 2019. The House will return sooner to resume its business on January 23, 2019. The bill filing deadline will be the first week of February. House members will continue to have 15 bills unless they chair a committee. In that instance, a chairman will have an additional five bills that must be related to the subject matter of his or her committee.

111th General Assembly App

General Assembly App

The 111th Tennessee General Assembly app features a continually updated, searchable database of contact, staff and committee information as well as district maps, photos, leadership roles and social media profiles for members of the Tennessee House and Senate. The app also contains information on the governor and his cabinet and the Tennessee congressional delegation. The app was developed through a partnership between the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association and Bass, Berry & Sims PLC.

The free app is available for iPhone, iPad and Android devices and can be found by searching for “Tennessee General Assembly” in the Apple App Store or Google PLAY Marketplace.

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association submitted feedback regarding the Rural Utilities Service’s e-Connectivity Pilot Program during a comment period provided by the RUS.

The e-Connectivity Pilot Program was was made possible by a $600 million appropriation from Congress in the Consolidated Budget Act of 2018. The USDA is working to create new funding and finance offerings through this pilot program to expand rural broadband in underserved rural and tribal areas.

Comments made by TECA to the RUS highlighted the successes of Tennessee’s electric co-ops in broadband and the need for additional funding to speed deployment. TECA affirmed comments made by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and requested consideration of seven additional suggestions:

  • Projects that achieve universal service inside a provider’s service territory should be incentivized over similar projects that leave significant gaps in coverage between communities
  • Projects that leverage additional investment in broadband infrastructure beyond the receipt of a grant itself should be incentivized over a similar project(s) that rely solely upon the program itself for its existence
  • Allow applicant(s) an opportunity to rebut any challenges of eligibility by third parties
  • Allow flexibility to award funds to any party participating in a partnership or other project that involves multiple eligible parties
  • Allow grants to be payable in multiple awards, rather than a single payment, if so desired by the recipient
  • Allow a small percentage of grants to be usable for start-up expenses of subsidiary entities
  • Provide loan products inside the pilot program at an interest rate below what is otherwise available by existing RUS programs, including FFB loans, or other more advantageous terms.

“We believe that the RUS’s e-Connectivity Pilot Program has the potential to have a meaningful impact on the expansion of broadband in rural Tennessee,” says Mike Knotts, vice president of government affairs with the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association. “We appreciate Secretary Purdue and the team at RUS for considering the input of Tennessee’s electric cooperatives.”

You can read TECA’s full comments below.

TECA RUS e-Connectivity Comments

NASHVILLE – Three Tennessee electric co-ops will receive almost $3 million to help expand broadband availability. Gibson Electric Membership Corporation, Holston Electric Cooperative and Meriwether Lewis Electric Cooperative each submitted winning bids in the most recent Federal Communications Commission Connect America Fund II (CAF II) reverse auction.

Over the next ten years, Gibson Connect, a subsidiary of Gibson EMC, will receive $1.22 million, Holston Connect, a subsidiary of Holston EC, will receive $530,000 and ML Connect, a subsidiary of Meriwether Lewis EC, will receive $1.18 million.

These three Tennessee co-ops were among 35 nationally that will receive $225 million to help defray the costs of deploying broadband in underserved areas. The CAF II auction marks the first time that the FCC allowed electric cooperatives to bid for funding as broadband service providers.

“We are pleased to see the FCC recognize that electric co-ops have a unique opportunity to bring broadband to rural and suburban America,” says David Callis, executive vice president and general manager of the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association. “Tennessee’s electric co-ops have demonstrated our ability to successfully deliver broadband, and we will continue to seek out innovative funding sources and partnerships to make this happen.”

Today two Tennessee co-ops announced projects to expand broadband.

Just over 79 years ago, from the Centerville Courthouse steps in Hickman County, Meriwether Lewis Electric Cooperative’s first leaders announced its commitment to provide safe, affordable, reliable electricity to areas overlooked by other providers. Today from the same location, MLEC President and CEO Keith Carnahan announced that MLEC was furthering that original initiative and launching Meriwether Lewis Connect, LLC, to deliver broadband internet across the five counties it serves.

“Our areas need broadband for education, healthcare, and community development. Studies show it is a vital need to attract and retain families and businesses,” said Carnahan. “Bringing high-speed internet to all our members is one of the largest investments we’ve made since our inception 79 years ago. It is a huge step in a completely different arena, but helping rural communities build essential services is just another facet of what cooperatives are designed to do.”

Additionally, Middle Tennessee Electric, the state’s largest electric cooperative, and United Communications, Middle Tennessee’s leading provider of fiber and fixed wireless internet services, today announced that they have partnered to expand broadband access to underserved areas across seven counties in Tennessee.

The partnership between Middle Tennessee Electric and United Communications allows the two organizations to combine their resources and decades of experience to offer affordable, high‐speed internet services to members and customers in the coming years and improve quality of life for those in the areas they serve.

“We’re proud to be the first electric cooperative to pursue a partnership of this kind in Tennessee and answer the calls we have long heard from our members. They want and need access to broadband service,” said Chris Jones, president and CEO of Middle Tennessee Electric. “United Communications is the ideal partner for us. They have already built an impressive fiber backbone throughout many areas we serve which will allow us to work together to more rapidly and cost effectively expand internet services.”

This initiative is already under way and full implementation will be a multi‐year process. Based on input from the community, the partnership will prioritize implementation in areas with the highest demand. It allows both organizations to build a world‐class smart grid in the region, at the lowest possible cost, while not impacting Middle Tennessee Electric members’ electric rates, which are some of the lowest in the country.

Both co-op announcements come as a result of the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act signed into law in 2017 by Gov. Bill Haslam. The law removed restrictions to allow co-ops to provide broadband to the communities they serve. Since implementation of the law, eight of the state’s 23 co-ops have announced broadband projects.

NASHVILLE – More than 60 co-op leaders from across Tennessee traveled to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday and Wednesday, April 10 and 11, to meet with members of the Tennessee congressional delegation as a part of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s annual legislative conference.

“This trip is about building relationships,” said David Callis, executive vice president and general manager of the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association. “When lawmakers evaluate legislation that impacts electric co-ops or rural Tennessee, we want them to think of us. It is important for them to know who we are and how policy will affect us and our consumers.”

In meetings with legislators, co-ops leaders encouraged lawmakers to support the Farm Bill and rural development programs, reject the administration’s proposal to sell TVA’s transmission assets and dedicate funding for rural broadband and other infrastructure projects. Lawmakers were also invited to visit their local co-ops to meet employees, attend annual meetings or tour co-op facilities.

Meetings were held with Senators Alexander and Corker and Representatives Black, Blackburn, DesJarlais, Duncan, Fleischmann, Roe and Kustoff.

“I’m a big supporter of rural areas, and I thank you for coming up to give a voice to the people you serve,” said Rep. Diane Black. “A lot of people never make it to visit legislators in Nashville, and certainly not to Washington, D.C. It’s important for their issues to be heard, and I appreciate what you do.”

In addition to visits with members of Congress, attendees also heard from industry and policy experts, including U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue. During a speech to co-op leaders, Secretary Purdue discussed the importance of rural broadband and highlighted the successes of Tennessee’s electric co-ops. “Rural broadband is not just a luxury — it’s essential,” said Purdue. “Tennessee recently changed state law, and now seven of their electric co-ops are pursuing broadband. I don’t believe that America would ever reach the productivity we have today across our nation without abundant flow of electricity everywhere. In the same way, we cannot make America great again without high-speed e-connectivity available to every American.”

 

NASHVILLE – On Tuesday, March 20, the BroadbandUSA Program, in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, hosted a Broadband Summit in Nashville. Gov. Bill Haslam along with other presenters discussed the importance of broadband and explored ways to increase deployment.

Gov. Haslam reiterated Tennessee’s commitment to expand broadband access: “All means all when it comes to access to education and job opportunities, and all means all when it comes to access to broadband.”

“Since the passage of the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act, electric cooperatives have moved swiftly to help answer the call for more broadband in rural Tennessee,” said Mike Knotts, TECA director of government affairs, who participated in a panel discussion during the Broadband Summit. “Seven of the state’s 22 electric co-ops have already made the decision to move forward with providing broadband service, and others are currently evaluating similar decisions.”

The Broadband Accessibility Act provided $10 million in grant funding in 2018 to spur broadband expansion in unserved areas. Earlier this year two co-ops received $2.7 million in broadband grants from the state. These grants have generated more than $90 million in broadband investment by electric co-ops in Tennessee. “The modest investments made through the Broadband Accessibility Grant Fund are already reaping huge rewards,” said Knotts. “That’s a tremendous multiplier, and we hope that future funding from the state will enable even greater levels of investment into this critical infrastructure.”

On Tuesday Gov. Haslam announced several budget amendments including an additional $5 million in nonrecurring broadband accessibility grants, in addition to the $10 million originally included in the FY 18-19 budget.

Gov. Haslam addresses attendees at a Broadband Summit hosted by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development on Tuesday, March 20. Photo via Gov. Bill Haslam on Flickr.