Sen. Mitch McConnell is one of the most powerful members of Congress, sent there by Kentuckians. Now, we need him to listen to Kentuckians.
Despite months of opportunities to move the Miner’s Protection Act and the RECLAIM Act, the Senate majority leader refused to prioritize these bills and made the decision to come home without crucial assistance for coal miners and their communities.
The Miners Protection Act, which upholds a government promise to protect the health care and pensions of some retired United Mine Workers of American miners, has been before Congress for more than a year.
But McConnell refused to allow the bill to come to a vote, then he failed to include the full bill in the continuing resolution that passed last week. The resolution includes only the health-care portion of the bill, and only through April. It also ignores the urgent need to shore up pensions.
If someone told you that in May you might lose the health care you earned, would you consider them fighting on your behalf?
I am a fourth-generation coal miner who worked for 12 years in the industry. I began mining to pay for my college education and soon after dropped out of college due to the great pay and benefits. Growing up in Southeastern Kentucky, I watched my family struggle through the boom-and-bust periods of the coal industry while other members of my family moved away for more reliable work.
I want to see my family, specifically my daughter, afforded more opportunities than I was.
There are many individuals, organizations and local governments across the commonwealth that are seeking to build a bright future and improve the quality of life of all Kentuckians. Our communities deserve a strong, diverse economy that is made up of multiple industries, provides wages that can sustain a family, and builds on our local assets and heritage.
The coal miners of Kentucky powered this country and played a key role in the industrial revolution. Henry Ford relied on the backs of miners and Kentucky’s natural resources for his automotive plants. One way of valuing that heritage is by making right on the promises made to our miners.
Yet, as the industry declined and markets became worse, the corporations responsible for upholding these promises began to shut down and file for bankruptcy. Then, they used bankruptcy court to back out of their commitment to these miners and their families, and paid multi-million-dollar bonuses to their executives.
Alpha Natural Resources handed $11.9 million in bonuses to executives. That’s a slap in the face to those who worked in its various mines.
Another bill that would benefit coal communities, the RECLAIM Act, could put our unemployed miners immediately back to work reclaiming mines and would create opportunities for a more diverse economy in communities across Kentucky.
It is a bipartisan bill with 90 percent support in Kentucky and is of no cost to taxpayers. The bill has benefited from strong Kentucky leadership in the House, where Congressman Hal Rogers is championing it.
By not making the RECLAIM Act a priority in 2016, McConnell ignored a proposal that would bring $1 billion back to communities struggling with the decline of coal.
McConnell needs to care about coal miners, their families and their communities. He needs to move both of these bills as soon as Congress reconvenes on Jan. 3. It was within his power to move them in 2016, and we must demand that he lead on these issues and deliver for coal communities in 2017.
Gary Bentley of Lexington is a former coal miner and a Whitesburg native. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.