Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona makes national headlines as a maverick Democratic moderate whose vote can make or break major legislation. But in Arizona's electric cooperative territories, she is known simply as a fierce friend.
“To say that Senator Sinema has been an ardent advocate for Arizona's rural electric cooperatives would be an understatement," says Dave Lock, CEO of the Grand Canyon State Electric Cooperative Association. “We thank and applaud Senator Sinema for her responsiveness, vision, her bipartisanship, leadership and her willingness to be a balancing force in a very polarizing political time."
Sinema recently helped protect Arizona co-op members from rate hikes by securing a $500 million “purchase power and wheeling" appropriation authority granted to the Western Area Power Administration in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress last year. That authority empowers WAPA to fulfill contractual obligations to co-ops and other customers by purchasing power from alternative sources whenever generation from its 57 hydroelectric plants is insufficient. Without the program, grid reliability would have been placed at risk, especially with the severe drought in the West.
The senator, coordinating with the statewide association, met with the WAPA administrator to ensure that the funds would be spent in close consultation with the power administration's Arizona customers, co-op leaders say. WAPA delivers power across 15 states in the West and Midwest.
Previously, Sinema joined a bipartisan effort in Congress to fight off efforts by the Trump administration to sell off the transmission assets of WAPA and other power administrations, which deliver clean, affordable hydropower from federal dams to co-ops and their consumer-members.
In this session of Congress, Sinema is co-sponsoring the Flexible Financing for Rural America Act, which would enable co-ops to refinance their existing federal loans from the Rural Utilities Service at lower interest rates without any prepayment penalties. Co-ops say the bill would help them improve their systems and keep electric rates down.
“Her agreement to be a primary sponsor of the Flexible Financing for Rural America Act of 2021, which seeks to provide co-ops the ability to refinance existing debt to lower market rates, speaks to her understanding of the economic challenges rural Arizonans face," Lock says.
Sinema was a crucial vote in August in the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which included provisions that provide electric co-ops with direct federal payments as incentives to deploy new energy technologies, including carbon capture, nuclear, energy storage, renewables and more. The legislation also created a voluntary $9.7 billion grant and loan program designed specifically for electric co-ops that buy or build new clean energy systems.
In 2019, Sinema helped pass major co-op priorities, including the bipartisan RURAL Act, which protected co-ops against losing their tax-exempt status when they accept government grants to recover from disasters, provide broadband service or invest in renewable energy projects. She also supported the SECURE Act, which passed in 2019 and saved co-ops millions of dollars by reducing the pension insurance premiums that they must pay to the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.
“Arizona's electric co-ops connect rural communities across our state, providing critical electric and broadband services and helping Arizona families get ahead and build better lives," Sinema says. “I'll keep championing our state's co-ops, ensuring they can continue their incredible work while creating jobs and helping our state's economy grow and thrive."
Sinema, a 46-year-old Tucson native, began her political career in the Arizona State Legislature in 2005, serving three terms as a state representative and one term as a state senator. She was elected to the U.S. House in 2012 and served three terms before her election to the Senate in 2018. She is the first woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate from Arizona.