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Cramer plans to be thorn for TVA

By Eric Fleischauer 340-2435

Less than a year into a new board structure, the Tennessee Valley Authority may have a new challenge: a thorn in its side by the name of Bud Cramer.

Rep. Cramer, D-Huntsville, declared his prickly status after his election Wednesday as co-chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority Caucus.

Cramer will share duties on the bicameral, bipartisan caucus with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

Like all congressmen from TVA-served areas, Cramer was already a member of the caucus. His election as co-chairman comes at a transitional time for TVA. After more than seven decades operating as a three-member board, Congress last year restructured the TVA into a nine-member board of directors with a chief executive officer.

One of the board's most recent decisions, barring the sale of 293,000 acres of TVA-owned protected shorelines to private entities, has Cramer on edge.

"I've had a problem with their land use policy," Cramer said Wednesday. "I've felt like it's been too restrictive. TVA's charter is (to serve) economic development. TVA's got to be flexible when it comes to economic development. I'm not sure this land use policy they finally enacted is flexible enough."

Cramer said the fledgling board already has demonstrated a lack of concern for economic development issues.

"I'm not sure the new board and the new CEO, Tom Kilgore, are taking economic development as seriously as they should," Cramer said. "We've had a few industry opportunities that the TVA has reacted very differently to than they have before."

Bureaucracy fears

He said he also fears TVA is reverting to a bureaucracy that considers itself unaccountable to the public — specifically to Congress — an image it had shed in recent years.

"With TVA's new board structure, where I turn to get my answers is unclear," Cramer said. "I've not been getting clear, direct answers from TVA. I was particularly frustrated with TVA my first few years here (beginning in 1991) because it seemed to be a bureaucracy that didn't think it was accountable to anyone. I'm wondering now if TVA thinks it's even accountable to Congress."

Once a powerful force, the TVA Caucus drifted into the backwaters when it lost federal appropriations in the early 1990s. Cramer is determined to strengthen the group's role.

"Considering we've got a new board, a new structure, new frustrations, new concerns because of economic development and land use issues," Cramer said, "we need to get back together, and we need to put a whole new structure to what we do."

The first item on his agenda, scheduled for next week, is to meet with Alexander. Step No. 2, he said, is to implement a schedule of regular meetings with the TVA board.

"We're going to come up with a regular schedule of interactions with TVA," Cramer promised, "and these are going to be, how should I say it, very aggressive interactions."

In addition to revisiting its land use policy, Cramer said he plans to address concerns about TVA's storage of nuclear waste at Browns Ferry and the lock system.

Damage to the main and auxiliary locks in Florence strangled Decatur industry for months in 2006. Cramer said he may push for additional funding to maintain the locks.

"We (the caucus) have talked about lock safety, lock security, the cost of locks that are aging and the fact they are breaking down more, which is jamming up river traffic," Cramer said. "We know that river is as important as any interstate highway. The industry that considers coming our way is most often interested in its ability to use that river."

TVA rates

Cramer said he also will focus on TVA's rates. TVA implemented its first mid-year rate hike in a quarter century last year, impacting residents and industry in the Decatur area.

"They should be accountable to the ratepayers," Cramer said. "We've got to hold their feet to the fire and cross-examine them about their whole rate structure, and make sure we're the guardians for the people."

Cramer chuckled.

"I told the caucus before it elected me that I'd be, to a certain extent, a thorn in TVA's side."

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