When big telecom companies wanted electric cooperatives in Oklahoma to give them cheap access to co-op distribution poles, they used their deep pockets and numerous well-heeled lobbyists in the state Capitol to push for favorable legislation. What the cable guys didn’t count on was the power of co-op community voices.
“We were outnumbered by lobbyists, but we have one thing they don’t have: We have members, folks who care about their co-ops,” said Jim Reese, director of government and regulatory affairs for the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives.
As House Bill 3835, which would have forced co-ops to subsidize telecom’s use of their poles, raced toward passage in late March, the Oklahoma statewide contacted NRECA’s Voices for Cooperative Power. Within 48 hours, nearly every state representative began receiving emails from constituents, friends, neighbors—all electric co-op members—urging them to oppose the bill.
“We called NRECA on Tuesday afternoon, and we were putting emails out on Thursday,” said Chris Meyers, general manager and CEO of Oklahoma City-based OAEC. “The number of emails and contacts was remarkable.”
In total, 4,324 contacts were made to lawmakers over four business days. That included 3,885 emails from co-op members to 91 of the state House’s 101 legislators along with 395 shares of OAEC’s alert on Facebook and 44 on Twitter.
The substantial grassroots opposition made the bill’s likelihood of passage on the floor questionable, but House leaders wanted lawmakers to address the issue of pole attachment fees. Compromise legislation removed all sections regulating electric co-ops and replaced telecom’s pole attachment fee language with a formula developed by the co-ops.
Gov. J. Kevin Stitt signed the bill into law April 28 after it cleared the House 94-1 and the Senate 44-1.
“Because of the grassroots effort, we came out far better than we would have without it,” Meyers said.
Anna Politano, communications director for OAEC, recalled how lawmakers were awed by the wave of contacts from “neighbors, people they knew” on the arcane issue of pole attachment fees.
“It truly got their attention,” she said. “The grassroots effort was a game changer.”
The Oklahoma statewide is among the first to call on the year-old VCP for grassroots action on state legislation.
“Their openness to try something new got the whole thing kick-started,” said Pat Ahearn, NRECA director of political affairs. “We are getting more and more calls from statewides. They anticipate issues with pole attachments and telecom and have heard about VCP and how to use it.”
The VCP platform served as the “meeting point” for the statewide and NRECA and provided the infrastructure to contact lawmakers through multiple channels.
Working with NRECA, the statewide alerted co-op members through emails sent to readers of Oklahoma Living magazine, the association’s trade publication, on the harmful legislation. “For years, these telecommunications companies had no interest in investing in rural Oklahoma until taxpayers started paying for their infrastructure,” the alert said.
Members responded quickly by clicking an embedded link that sent an email with their name and address directly to their legislator asking the lawmaker to vote against the bill. OAEC also created a “homeowner vs. renter analogy” infographic to educate members on the issue.
Some lawmakers got over 200 emails from voters in their districts.
“One legislator told me, ‘I’ll be darned if every one of them wasn’t one of my constituents,’” Reese said. “That is what the platform was designed to do: Get the message to your legislators.”
About a third of Oklahoma’s 27 co-ops participated in the campaign, Meyers said, but when lawmakers on the receiving end asked the statewide to “turn off the spigot,” it did.
“The grassroots presence could have been bigger,” Meyers said, noting the scalability of VCP and the importance of using it judiciously. “If anything, it gave us a glimpse and essence of how far we can reach with this tool.”
Explore NRECA’s resources on political advocacy.