OU Amps Up Lobbying For Energy Discounts

Green subsidies for nonprofits, including schools, also part of group’s push in D.C., Albany.

By Adam Dickter

Originally published in The Jewish Week, July 3, 2013

Parochial schools and other nonprofits should be entitled to the same discounted energy rates and subsidies as public schools, the Orthodox Union is arguing in Washington and in Albany.

The OU’s public affairs organization, which recently rebranded itself OU Advocacy, is pushing Congress and the state Legislature to pass bills that would lower electric bills for faith-based organizations and include them in programs to retrofit buildings with greener technology.

The nationwide effort joins OU and the Jewish Federations of North America in a coalition with Seventh Day Adventists, Catholic bishops and Evangelical Lutherans, as well as cultural nonprofits such as the Association of Art Museum Directors that would benefit from the funding.

“Energy costs are something we all confront,” said Nathan Diament, director of OU Advocacy. “In addition to discounted rates, there are energy efficient programs such as adding more efficient lighting at schools. Public schools can get that for free.”

The initiative is fair because most incentives for energy efficiency for organizations come in the form of tax credits and rebates, which tax-exempt organizations are unable to access, the OU argues. Also, many charities can’t afford up-front investment costs for heating or other systems that will eventually save money.

Last month, an Assembly Democrat, Sean Ryan of Buffalo, and a state Senate Republican, Martin Golden of Brooklyn, introduced the Energy Parity Act in their respective houses, arguing that lower rates applied only to public schools amounts to “utility discrimination.”

“This legislation is about fairness, and doing what is right for all students in our state, regardless of where they are educated,” Ryan told The Jewish Week in an e-mail Tuesday. “It will help to lower energy costs for many more schools across New York, which will allow schools to invest in educating our children, instead of spending money on sky-high electric bills. It is only fair that all schools throughout New York have access to these important energy savings.”

Joining with Teach-NYS, a program founded by Sephardic activists to maximize public aid to private schools and lobby for tax credits for parents, the OU wants the New York Power Authority (NYPA) to help schools lower electric bills by as much as 50 percent.

Research by the OU found that the average Jewish school in New York State pays a minimum of $30,000, with some of the larger institutions paying upwards of $750,000.

At a press conference in June in Albany, Tamar Eisenstat, a member of the executive advisory committee for SAR Academy and High School in Riverdale, said that school spends more than $600,000 annually on electricity, but could see that bill slashed in half under the Energy Parity Act .

A spokesman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not respond to a request for comment on the administration’s view of the bill in time for publication.

Jeff Leb, the OU’s New York director of political affairs, said the bill did not necessarily require an increase in spending.

“It’s a zero-sum game because the [NYPA] would get the power from their electric grids or buy it from a supplier at an extremely discounted rate and in turn pass it on for purchase at that rate,” he said.

The NYPA, established in 1931, operates 16 generating facilities that supply power at cost to rural electric cooperatives, job-producing companies, private utilities and to neighboring states. It is the largest public energy producer in the country.

Leb said his coalition is also talking to state energy officials about forming an agreement that would not require legislation. Since the legislative session has ended, the earliest the Parity Act can be considered is early next year.

But if passed, the bill would remove NYPA’s discretion over which schools get reduced-rate power. “This would end their ability to choose and mandate them to deal with everyone the same,” Leb said, noting that not even all public schools get cheap power.

The initiative comes at a time when activists are working to maximize the amount of government aid to yeshivas, with national Jewish organizations like the OU and Agudath Israel hiring lobbyists in states with large Jewish populations and schools working to take advantage of grants for security, technology, transportation and textbooks. In New York City, aid to yeshivas and day schools has become a key issue on the agenda of Orthodox groups in the race for mayor.

Diament said the efforts in Washington and Albany would not only aid schools but synagogues and JCCs, as well as “the broader nonprofit sector with other kinds of coalition partners.”

He recently testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Energy in support of the Nonprofit Energy Efficiency Act (S.717), sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.), which would require the Department of Energy to provide a pilot program of grants of up to $200,000 to nonprofit organizations to make their buildings more energy efficient, with a 50 percent match. It would include not just schools and houses of worship but youth centers, hospitals and other nonprofit facilities like museums.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said that while the federal bill might have a chance of passing the Democrat-led Senate, “you can pretty much count on it being eliminated in the House, which is becoming the chief graveyard of bills right now. This Congress is actually beating the last Congress as the least successful in modern times as far as bill passage.”

The fact that environmentalism is always controversial and the bill would increase spending makes a quick vote even less likely, Sabato said.

But the OU argues that reducing energy costs for charities that provide services can have a trickle-down effect by making them more efficient when they are able to use more funds on programs, as well as enable them to increase jobs.

Diament said the recent name change from Institute for Public Affairs to OU Advocacy is “part of moving our work more into the consciousness of the community,” since the organization’s outside reputation is generally focused on its kosher food certification.