NEW ORLEANS—Passage of the RURAL Act showed how powerful electric cooperatives can be advocating on legislation before Congress and created a roadmap for future successes, NRECA CEO Jim Matheson said Monday at the association’s annual meeting.

“It’s a great feeling, for me and for the entire team at NRECA, when we get to work with you to put a win on the board that means something in the communities we serve together,” Matheson said.

Co-op leaders, employees and consumer-members worked with NRECA last year to mount an intense, campaign-style effort to convince lawmakers to pass the RURAL Act to save co-ops’ tax-exempt status.

Some co-ops were facing the prospect of paying taxes this year because of a provision in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that redefined government grants as income. Any co-op that accepted grants to restore service after storms or bring broadband service to rural communities risked losing its tax-exempt status by exceeding the 15% limit on non-member revenue.

In December, Congress fixed the problem by passing the RURAL Act, which says that government grants do not count as income for co-ops. Of more than 100 proposed changes to the 2017 tax bill, the RURAL Act was one of two tax issues that was considered as part of the year-end budget agreement.

“We had several other legislative victories at the end of last year, important victories,” Matheson said. “But the RURAL Act stands out for what we accomplished together. We addressed an injustice, and we fixed it. And we did it on our own. We elevated our bill above politics. We made it local—about fairness to our members. And I firmly believe we have more successes like this in our future.”

The key to winning that vote was leveraging the stellar reputation that co-ops enjoy in Washington, he said.

“You have this credibility, you have this experience, you have this mission, and you have this ability to make a difference,” Matheson said. “People in Washington don’t trust practically anyone these days, but they trust us. They trust you. I think about it all the time: How do we turn our members’ reputation—your reputation—into our members’ success—your success.”

He said NRECA has enhanced that reputation through its “Co-op 101” program, which educates new members of Congress about co-ops and reintroduces the broad importance of co-ops to experienced lawmakers.

“By doing these things, we successfully built an even stronger reputation for being community-focused, for nonpartisanship, and for being part of the solution,” Matheson said. “Today, when you look across the political landscape, we’re the most respected, most effective energy organization in Washington on both sides of the aisle.”

Co-ops must continue to engage in politics to protect and grow their community and business interests, he said.

“Don’t step back from politics, stride into it,” Matheson urged. “I know your voice matters to our leaders because I watch as they listen to you and what you care about.”

He asked co-op leaders to work with NRECA to continue to strengthen co-ops’ influence in Washington.

“We’ve got a great success under our belt, now our task is to build on it,” Matheson said. “Electric co-ops are essential to the national interest because we have an unparalleled national presence. We share a great mission as a membership.

“Now we’re called to expand it. We serve a unique purpose—from our communities to Congress—and now we must live it. The moment is all about who we are and what we stand for. I’m proud of the work we do together, and I’m excited for the journey ahead.

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