After the largest wildfire in New Mexico history ravaged the state in 2022, destroying more than 340,000 acres of homes, ranches, farms and forests and severely damaging an electric cooperative system, Sen. Ben Ray Luján led efforts to secure $2.5 billion in federal aid to help rebuild the devastated communities.
Luján's bill requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency to design and administer a program with a new claims office to fully compensate those who suffered personal injury or financial losses from the fire.
“Senator Luján has been at the forefront in ensuring the victims of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire are fully reimbursed for damages," says Keven Groenewold, CEO of the New Mexico Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
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Groenewold says Luján has long been supportive of electric co-ops, helping them in both the Senate, where he has served for the past two years, and in the House, where he served from 2009 to 2021.
“Senator Luján over the years has co-sponsored many of our co-op priorities," he says.
The Democratic senator is a co-sponsor of the Flexible Financing for Rural America Act, which would allow electric co-ops throughout the nation to refinance their Rural Utilities Service loans at lower interest rates without prepayment penalties. Co-ops have said they would use the money they save to upgrade their systems and keep rates down for members. Leaders of the New Mexico Rural Electric Cooperative Association say they will work with the senator to try to pass the legislation in 2023.
The statewide association also praises Luján for his support of a provision in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act that created a voluntary $9.7 billion grant and loan program designed specifically for electric co-ops that buy or build new clean energy systems. The program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provides funding for a wide range of projects, including renewable energy, carbon capture, battery storage, nuclear power and improvements to generation and transmission efficiency.
New Mexico co-op leaders say Luján also understands that rural communities in the state lack access to high-speed internet. The senator has pushed for broadband funding and recently announced that the USDA has awarded $108 million in funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law to New Mexico to expand reliable, affordable, high-speed internet to residents in seven counties. The funding will come through the USDA's ReConnect Loan and Grant Program.
“Rural co-ops work for the communities they serve and have nearly a century of experience connecting rural areas with essential services," Luján says. “Broadband is the new frontier. For an entrepreneur starting an online business, a student completing their homework assignments, or a New Mexican seeking telehealth services, a reliable connection to broadband and power is a necessity for every facet of life."