When was the last time rural infrastructure made headlines?

Philip Brasher, senior editor at Agri-Pulse, can’t recall, saying “a couple or three decades or close to it.” Brasher, a panelist at an April 9 forum on infrastructure legislation at the 2018 NRECA Legislative Conference, said it’s significant that members of Congress are discussing the issue.

“The No. 1 point I want to make is that rural broadband and rural infrastructure are a priority. They’ve been a priority in this Congress more than I’ve seen than they ever have been.”

Released earlier this year, President Trump’s Rebuilding Infrastructure in America proposal elevated rural prosperity to the national stage. The plan asks that 25 percent of funding be set aside as a block grant to states for rural infrastructure projects.

Noting that Trump’s plan has had a cool reception in Congress, moderator Hill Thomas, legislative affairs director at NRECA, suggested “a little-piece strategy” in which lawmakers attach portions of an infrastructure package to several bills, such as the $600 million in loans and grants for rural broadband in the spending bill passed last month.

Other legislation could include reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration and the Water Resources Development Act, the panelists said.

“You could be cynical and say that was stuff that Congress was going to do anyway, but it does provide an opportunity to do a little bit more, to attach some extra infrastructure funding or regulatory policy that provides kind of an avenue to do that,” said panelist Jacob Fischler, a reporter at CQ Roll Call.

The Department of Agriculture is another source of momentum on rural infrastructure. “They don’t have a timetable yet” to spend the $600 million in broadband grants and loans in the spending bill, said Brasher. “Secretary Perdue has told [Anne Hazlett, assistant to the secretary for rural development] they want to have it ready as soon as possible.”

Even if a formal rural infrastructure package doesn’t clear Congress this year, electric co-ops should still continue to engage lawmakers, said panelists. “You don’t build coalitions overnight,” said Brasher. “You don’t educate members of Congress and staff overnight. It takes time.”