Back to the Future on Unfair Cable Bill?Lessons for Co-ops from the Iron Lady

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor

Richard Johnstone

Margaret Thatcher was an impressive figure as she strode the world stage as British Prime Minister from 1979 till 1990. She both commanded, and earned, the world’s attention.

She remains today one of the few world leaders whose renown and celebrity are at an altitude sufficient to prompt a major movie studio to produce a mass-market film about her life. And perhaps most remarkably, to do so not merely once time and historians have sprinkled her memory with the holy water of lasting importance, but instead while she is still living. Her moniker during her tenure as PM was “The Iron Lady,” and that is the highly appropriate title of the movie about her that’s currently playing in theaters.

Among the many memorable quips, quotes, anecdotes and asides attributed or assigned to Mrs. Thatcher over the years is one that we think resonates particularly well in this season of legislative hustle and bustle at the State Capitol in Richmond.

She once observed that “Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides.”

Thankfully, during the 2011 General Assembly session, countless electric cooperative customer-owners, perhaps including you and some of your neighbors, embodied the essence of Mrs. Thatcher’s apt aphorism. You did NOT stand in the middle of the road a year ago or on the sidewalk either, for that matter. No, indeed, this army of cooperative citizens chose not to be observers, but instead joined in common cause and spoke out to their state delegates and senators to oppose an unfair bill being pushed by large, out-of-state cable companies.

Last year’s legislative battle proved yet again that the true and abiding source of electric cooperative power, literally and figuratively, is ... you. You spoke out and made a difference in the outcome of this cable company bill.

You may recall that this bill would have reduced the fees that cable companies pay to attach their lines to cooperative poles. To keep itself financially whole, your cooperative must charge a fee that fully recovers the costs involved in allowing these attachments. Under the bill proposed last year by the cable companies, though, cooperatives would not have been able to recover all of their costs in allowing these attachments.

This, of course, would have shifted these costs from the cable companies, where they belong, onto you and your neighbors, which would not have been right or fair. Had the bill passed, it would have resulted in electric cooperative customer-owners like you subsidizing large, out-of-state cable companies!

That’s when you and your neighbors entered the picture. From emails to old-fashioned letters, from phone calls to personal visits — and to one extraordinary lady in the Shenandoah Valley who told us she canvassed her neighbors for signatures opposing the cable company bill — you took a strong, principled stand for what was right.

And the General Assembly listened, choosing not to pass the cable company bill. Instead, the issue was referred for study to the State Corporation Commission. Following months of research, the SCC study report basically affirmed the view of electric cooperatives.

The SCC report stated in part, “any reduction to cooperatives’ and electric investor-owned utilities’ pole-attachment rates will likely require an increase in consumers’ electric rates if the utilities’ revenue requirements remain the same.”

We would like to think that fairness, common sense, the voice of the people, and a study report by the state agency charged with regulating electric utilities would be the final word on this matter. And we hope that it will.

But as this issue is going to press in mid-January, at the outset of the 2012 General Assembly session, it appears that the large cable companies intend to play their own version of “Back to the Future” and will again attempt to shift these costs onto cooperative customer-owners.

So we’re asking that you again be prepared to speak out for fairness and common sense, on this and perhaps other issues as well. Please go to www.vmdaec.com/takeaction and become more involved in the issues that affect the cooperative of which you’re both a customer and an owner. If you don’t have Internet access, please call your cooperative to find out how you can learn more about the legislative issues that affect your electric utility, and ways that you can take part in speaking out on these issues.

In the cynical, partisan age in which we live, it’s easy to forget that the voice of the people, joined in unison in a mighty chorus, really DOES make a difference. It remains the very best way to exercise democracy. And precisely because the public is rightly skeptical about the political process, such citizen involvement is both needed more than ever, and more powerful than ever.

To paraphrase “The Iron Lady” on the subject, she might well observe that if you’re not driving toward a solution, then you’ll probably get run over by the problem.



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