Obama TVA plan gets cool reception

Obama TVA plan gets cool reception

April 12th, 2013 by Chris Carroll in Local Regional News

Tennessee Valley Authority headquarters and TVA logo

Photo by Miranda Harple

WASHINGTON - Southern Republicans in Congress slammed President Barack Obama's proposed TVA overhaul, calling it misguided, vague and unrealistic.

"That's just one little part of the budget," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. "It's not going to go anywhere. I don't want to have a big fight over it."

In several Capitol Hill interviews Thursday, Tennessee and Georgia lawmakers criticized the president for keeping them in the dark on what U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., called "a major, major decision." Several used the phrase "out of the blue."

"I think it was a surprise to everyone," U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said. "Actually, I got a call from TVA letting me know it was in the document before we saw the document."

On page 51 of his budget request Wednesday, Obama buried a bombshell for 9 million ratepayers and 12,000 employees in seven Southern states. Citing the Tennessee Valley Authority's debt constraints, the president announced an upcoming "review of options for addressing TVA's financial situation, including the possible divestiture of TVA, in part or as a whole." No potential buyers are identified.

"We're nowhere near ready to think that ought to happen," Chambliss said.

Even Tennessee's two congressional Democrats reported no advance notice before the administration announced the proposal Wednesday; new details were few and far between 24 hours later.

"There's not really a whole lot we would add beyond the [paragraph in the budget]," White House spokeswoman Joanna Rosholm said in a phone message Thursday. "We feel it's basically self-explanatory."

Obama, Isakson and 11 Senate Republicans dined for three hours at the White House Wednesday evening. On Thursday, Isakson confirmed that TVA wasn't mentioned.

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Nashville Democrat, said the proposal would meet serious resistance in the South. He predicted that ratepayers would see rates spike if private owners took over.

"Right now, TVA doesn't raise rates to pay shareholders who may live in Singapore or France," Cooper said. "The Paris we care about is Paris, Tenn. Not Paris, France."

NO IMMEDIATE MOVES

TVA officials described the proposal as "unexpected" on Wednesday.

With so much immediate opposition in Washington, any sale is far from becoming a reality; right now a potential sale represents nothing more than an Oval Office suggestion.

But the authority has said it will cooperate with any "strategic review" ordered from on high.

Eighty years after TVA's creation, the federal government still owns it. But ratepayers -- not taxpayers -- have funded operations since 1959. TVA's roughly $24 billion debt functions the same way: It is factored into the federal deficit, but only ratepayers repay the debt.

Still, TVA benefits from its status as a federal entity. The authority enjoys a stronger credit rating and cheaper interest than private utilities. The lower expenses allow TVA to finance electricity, river system management, campground maintenance and other services.

"I don't believe there's a better way to keep lower, reliable rates in the Tennessee Valley than this model right now," U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said. "Selling TVA, I think, is a bizarre idea."

But Obama may have an unlikely ally in U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican. While he avoided TVA details specifically, Shelby was one of very few Southerners who praised the president's thinking.

"I have thought for years that all of our stuff would be run better privately and more efficiently," he said. "I would like to see more of it."

Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@timesfreepress.com or 423-280-2025.