Taking the helm

New utility committee chairman plans to emphasize collaboration

Posted on Jan 03 2017 in Features

After serving four years in the Indiana Legislature, State Rep. David Ober will take the lessons he’s learned from his fellow legislators with him as he takes over the chairmanship of the House Utilities, Energy and Telecommunications Committee.

As we begin the 120th term of the Indiana General Assembly, there’s been a lot of movement in committee assignments that could impact Indiana’s electric cooperatives — and members like you — throughout the state. One key committee that can really shape the landscape of safe, affordable and reliable electric service throughout the Hoosier state is the committee on utilities, energy and telecommunications in the House of Representatives.

With the former chairman of the House utilities committee, Eric Koch (R-Bedford), moving across the hallway to the Indiana Senate, a new chairman of that committee has been named — State Rep. David Ober (R-Albion). The 29-year-old Noble County native was elected to the Indiana House in 2012 and served as assistant majority whip during the last General Assembly. Ober shared his insights on his new chairmanship and other issues affecting electric cooperative members.

ELECTRIC CONSUMER: What opportunities do you see on the horizon that could positively impact energy policy in the next five-10 years?

REP. OBER:  Indiana and other Midwestern states are in a cycle of change regarding how we provide and access energy. Our state has been reliant on coal for generations and changes in federal policy as well as cheaper forms of energy coming to market have required us to adapt. I think these adaptations will ultimately make us more competitive as we bring new technologies to market and make investments in providing better service to ratepayers.

The opportunities are endless and we hope the result is cheaper, more reliable access to energy. Anything we can do to become more self-reliant as a state in how we generate power will mean great opportunities to keep down costs.

What we are beginning to hear from economic development professionals is that businesses looking to relocate are citing energy cost as a top factor in their decisions. This means that we must become more competitive or we risk losing momentum in economic growth and job creation.

EC: What attracted you to the House Utilities Committee chairmanship?

OBER: The House Committee on Utilities, Energy and Telecommunications deals with some very complicated issues that have a broad impact on the lives of Hoosiers. Specifically, I am very passionate about ensuring that our citizens have access to affordable energy and broadband internet connectivity. These are quality of life issues that have a major influence on our ability to attract talent and develop our local and state economies. I see this as a challenge and I very much want to be part of the solution.

EC: Based on a recent FCC study, approximately 52 percent of rural Hoosiers do not have adequate broadband internet access. How do you think broadband service can be expanded in rural Indiana? What would be a reasonable timeline to do so?

OBER: It is going to take a combined state and federal approach to address this problem.

There are federal funds available to expand broadband access, however, these funds aren’t always utilized well and there are many agencies that have some authority over how funds are distributed. There is a great opportunity to streamline these federal functions so that those dollars are stretched.

I also think there’s a state role to be played: one where we identify barriers to access and where we might partner to make investments in improved access.

It will take a while to set the right course, but it is one of my passions and goals to bring broadband internet access to underserved areas in our state.

EC: What are some of the key leadership attributes you feel are important as you lead the House Utilities Committee?

OBER: I’ve spent the past three years as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, which was once described to me as similar to getting a master’s degree in state government. That experience will help guide me in this new role.

I also believe that a sense of humility and willingness to learn from others is key to leadership in the General Assembly. As a young legislator and a new chairman I recognize that there is much that I don’t know and my colleagues are great resources. An emphasis on collaboration, even across party lines, is something I hope to bring to my new leadership role.

EC: Outside of your work at the General Assembly, what do you most enjoy spending your time doing?

OBER: I’m from Northeast Indiana and our area is known for our natural lakes, which number in the hundreds. I enjoy spending time biking and kayaking at Chain O’Lakes State Park near my hometown.

My job affords me the opportunity to travel around the country and as a foodie I definitely use my travels to explore local restaurants. I consider myself to be a connoisseur of BBQ restaurants.

I’ve taken up the game of golf and so I am constantly working to lower my handicap at one of our many courses in Northeast Indiana.

EC: What do you like most and least about serving in the Indiana General Assembly?

OBER: The Legislature isn’t just the limestone building on Capitol Avenue; it’s the people who are serving their communities and the state. I very much enjoy time spent with my colleagues learning about their communities and families. I have forged some strong friendships with many of my colleagues that will continue well beyond my service at the Statehouse.

One of the things that I enjoy least about the Legislature is how some issues have become so partisan and it’s difficult to find consensus. We haven’t reached the level of partisanship like we see in Congress, but it’s not hard to see how Washington has become so polarized.

EC: What do you think are a couple of the most critical variables in keeping safe, reliable and affordable energy in Indiana?

OBER: Certainly federal policies that are directed at reducing reliance on fossil fuels have a major impact on affordability in our state. I can’t predict what the new administration will do to address these policies, but I know that there is much we can do as a state to ensure that our citizens have reliable energy that is affordable.

I think that providing some level of certainty in state policy makes it much easier for energy providers to adapt and plan to meet these federal challenges. Utilities look well into the future to identify trends before making investments to meet those needs and uncertainty in state and federal governance complicates that process leading to higher cost. As the new chairman I will look to make cautious and measured changes to our state policies that are data-driven.

EC: As a legislator from rural Indiana  — where we’ve seen a lot of population migration —  do you have ideas to encourage young people to either move to or remain in rural Indiana?

OBER: It will be a huge undertaking to reverse this trend of population migration out of rural communities into metropolitan centers in our state.

Affordable access to broadband internet is certainly one of the largest challenges we face in rural counties. Encouraging investment to build out that data infrastructure will improve quality of life for all Hoosiers.

I believe also that prioritizing conservation of our natural environment is important to our quality of life. Many Hoosiers want better access to trails and other outdoor recreation activities such as hunting/fishing, kayaking, camping, biking, etc. Rural communities have an abundance of these natural areas and we should work to make them accessible to everyone.