The Tennessee Valley Authority will be celebrating its 80th birthday Saturday. Some might say the public utility is beginning to show its age, but don’t try to tell that to TVA employees, New Deal Democrats, or those who like boating on a local lake.
There are even Republicans who are still proud of the old lady, although some say she might need a thorough checkup. Count U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander among the former. The senior senator from Tennessee knows how important TVA is to this state’s economy, both past and present. Alexander also believes TVA has a vital role to play in shaping Tennessee’s future.
His junior colleague from Tennessee is among those who think the TVA’s finances need a close examination. Unlike some GOP senators, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker hasn’t called for the privatization of the public utility. He has, however, agreed with President Barack Obama’s calls for a “strategic review” of the TVA.
Some on Capitol Hill have speculated a section in the president’s proposed budget titled “Reform TVA” could be the first step in selling off what is the U.S. government’s largest and best-known public utility. Corker says something must be done about TVA’s looming debt. The public utility reported a $24.6 billion debt as of Dec. 31 — much of it for capital projects that are underwritten by its sale of electricity.
I’m sure Corker, being a big-time financier, is correct to suggest the TVA board hasn’t always managed the utility’s money as it should. And I’m certain Corker knows what he is talking about when he says the TVA’s pension program is a big problem, but I’d be curious to know if such problems are simply limited to a public utility.
For example, do private energy companies that seek to modernize face similar problems? We should remember these companies are not being tasked by federal law to carry out the myriad of duties that TVA is expected to do.
TVA was created in 1933 to deliver low-cost electricity, control flooding and improve the economy of the Tennessee Valley. The utility serves 9 million people in parts of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
Patricia Bernard Ezzell, the corporate historian of TVA, says the mission of TVA is still “as relevant today” as it was when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the law creating the public utility. Part of that mission, Ezzell told me last week, “is to improve the quality of life” in our region.
Certainly, the TVA is one of the greatest legacies of FDR’s New Deal. TVA brought affordable electricity to even the most remote portions of our region. It has accomplished this through a plan of integrated management of natural resources. Flood control meant the building of hydroelectric dams, which in turn has provided rural electrification and the one thing most folks here think of when they hear TVA — recreation on the lakes.
Yes, TVA makes money on the sale of the energy it produces, but where are the profits to be made on flood mitigation and land management? Those are a couple of things lawmakers should keep in mind when they harp about selling TVA to a private company.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.