Busloads of miners descended on the United States Capitol Thursday, asking senators to support a bill to protect the pension plans of more than 110,000 union miners and their family members.
The proposal has won bipartisan support in some coal-producing states, but not Kentucky, where U.S. Sen. Rand Paul takes issue with the measure and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has done little to promote it.
The bill, which would cost between $2 billion and $3 billion, would shore up the pensions of members of the United Mine Workers of America, including 9,500 people in Kentucky, using Abandoned Mine Reclamation Funds.
If the bill is not passed, about 3,200 retired miners and their family members in Kentucky are at risk of losing health care benefits at the end of the year.
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Paul’s stance puts him in opposition with senators from coal-producing West Virginia and Illinois, as well as his Democratic opponent in the Nov. 8 election, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray.
“Dr. Paul supports using funds paid by the coal industry to the government to help our miners, retirees, and communities hurt by the War on Coal,” said Kelsey Cooper, a spokeswoman for Paul. “And he believes any bill to do so should treat all miners and retirees equally and not favor one group over another.”
When asked how Paul would vote on the bill, Cooper said she was unsure.
Of the 6,900 miners employed in Kentucky as of May 2016, none of them are members of the UMWA. The last UMWA mine in Kentucky closed in 2014.
The average miner receives $530 a month from the pension plan, but bankruptcies in the mining industry have put those pensions at risk.
9,500 the estimated number of retired Kentucky miners and family members whose pensions are at risk.
3,200 the estimated number of retired Kentucky miners and family members whose health care benefits are at risk.
Cooper said the senator takes issue with the bill because it doesn’t put miners back to work and that Paul’s biggest priority is trying to remove regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency that Cooper said have hurt the coal industry in recent years.
“Dr. Paul is committed to finding a solution to support Kentucky’s coal miners and their families, and will continue fighting for relief from the EPA’s overzealous regulations, as that is the most important thing we can do right now to help Kentucky’s coal industry,” she said.
Experts say a variety of factors have led to a steep decline in coal jobs, including tougher environmental regulations, the low price of natural gas and a drop in coal exports.
Gray said the federal government is capable of putting miners back to work and securing the pension plans of retired miners.
“It’s not an either or,” Gray said. “It’s a both and.”
Gray acknowledged the proposed bill wouldn’t help all miners, but said it’s a good starting place because of an agreement made between the federal government and the UMWA in 1946 that insured pensions and health care access for miners.
“Manufacturing success was built on the backs of coal miners in states like Kentucky and it’s just wrong to turn our backs on them now when times are toughest,” Gray said.
It’s just wrong to turn our backs on them now when times are toughest.
Jim Gray, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate
The Kentucky Coal Association, the lobbying group for coal interests in Kentucky, has not publicly supported or opposed the bill, according to president Bill Bissett.
“It’s not an issue we consider in our priorities,” Bissett said.
Republicans in Kentucky have a checkered history with the UMWA, which endorsed McConnell’s opponent in the 2014 Senate campaign.
McConnell has promised the bill will be heard in the Senate Finance Committee, but last year he effectively blocked funding for miner pensions from being put into a larger government spending bill.
“He continues to believe this issue deserves an open, transparent debate through regular order, and he appreciates the Senate Finance Committee’s commitment to take it seriously,” McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer said when asked if the senator supported the bill. “He will continue to work with his colleagues on the path forward.”
Two of the bill’s sponsors, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., acknowledge that some worry the bill could become a slippery slope that leads to government support of other pension plans, such as the Teamsters.
In response, they’re trying to narrow the bill’s focus.
“We can make a passionate plea that this is a 70-year promise,” Capito said Wednesday. “If we keep it within the scope of the original agreement and what we’ve ratified and what other Congresses have ratified over the years.”