Cooper: TVA a conversation starter?

Cooper: TVA a conversation starter?

February 14th, 2018 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

The cooling towers at TVA's Bellefonte Nuclear Generating Station in Jackson County, Ala., are pictured from Bellefonte Road in the town of Hollywood, Ala.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

The suggestion of selling the Tennessee Valley Authority or any of its assets makes about as much sense to most Tennessee Valley residents as hating Mom, kneeling for the national anthem or kicking the family dog.

It's just not done.

Indeed, TVA may mean more to some families than the family dog. Since the federally owned utility was created 85 years ago, area residents are still alive who can remember getting electricity for the first time in their homes, who can speak of how it changed their town, who can relate how it jump-started their family's business.

It was the miracle their forebears never believed they might see.

President Donald Trump's suggestion Monday that TVA and other government-owned power utilities sell their transmission assets was met with the indignation one might expect from Tennesseans.

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"Loony," said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

"I have consistently opposed [it]," said U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Chattanooga.

"It is not fair," said Doug Peters, president of the Chattanooga-based Tennessee Public Power Association.

We think the panic is a bit premature. Trump's suggestion was an opening salvo in the fiscal 2019 budget battle. In it, he is attempting to broker a deal to repair the nation's crumbling infrastructure. Unlike with health care reform and tax reform, an infrastructure bill has the potential to have bipartisan support.

And, after all, when presidents present a budget, it is just that — a presentation, a blueprint.

Remember Trump's initial budget presentation last year? It was going to eliminate funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Goodbye, Big Bird. It didn't happen.

It was going to zero out the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Overseas Private Investment Corp., the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the African Development Foundation, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the United States Institute of Peace, among others. Although we feel the federal government shouldn't be funding many of them, they're all still around.

"Congress," according to wording of a general online U.S. House explanation of the congressional budget process, "is not bound by any of the President's assumptions or recommendations, and may originate any budgetary legislation it chooses."

The chances of the government selling TVA's transmission assets are next to nothing. They're about the same as they were when President Obama suggested selling TVA in 2013, an idea he dropped after similar outrage and after the utility pledged further efforts to trim its spending and debt.

Ironically, if some other business had a monopoly in its seven-state territory, had no market competition and didn't pay federal income taxes, conservatives would squawk.

But the federal government oversees few assets that generally run as efficiently as TVA. The utility has been able to keep the cost of electricity to its customers among the lowest in the country. And it has evolved in its power sources — though slower than some would have it. Its largely coal plants have given way to electricity generation by nuclear, natural gas, hydro, steam and solar sources.

Imagine, for example, if Obamacare had been as efficient as TVA, for the most part, has been. The uninsured and many of the insured would be clamoring to climb aboard, and insurance companies would not have lost millions of dollars in the attempt to sell plans on state marketplaces.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., matched his Volunteer State counterpart in opining that "selling TVA is a very unlikely outcome," but he suggested — as he said he has before — that "it's valuable to evaluate from time to time reforms that could cause TVA to function more effectively for Tennessee taxpayers and ratepayers."

Would those reforms now or at any time in the future involve selling their transmission assets? He didn't say.

Trump, though, like Corker, is a businessman. Both realize the best solution is not always the political solution. But sometimes offering what they believe is the best solution is an opening gambit to what ultimately becomes the political solution. In the give and take, the solution, perhaps, has moved closer to their liking.

In 2015, for instance, the former Chattanooga mayor floated a revenue neutral proposal — that included a gas tax — that would have provided stable funding for the Highway Trust Fund. It was a solution that would have prevented stopgap measure after stopgap measure and, in general, from kicking the can down the road. But it got little support at the time.

Today, infrastructure spending has support on both sides of the political aisle, and an increase in the federal gas tax — which has not been raised since 1993 — is again being floated to help pay for some $2 trillion in improvements in roads, bridges, water and sewage systems.

We don't think it is the time, nor is the political will there, to sell TVA's assets. But can the suggestion start a bipartisan conversation about funding for infrastructure improvements? After the panic at the very hint of such a thing subsides, we hope it will.

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