Politics & Government

McConnell files bill to secure coal miners’ pensions, but not black lung fund

Sen. Mitch McConnell, along with both senators from West Virginia, introduced legislation Wednesday that could help shore up the unstable pensions and health care benefits of retired coal miners and their widows.

The legislation comes just one week after one of the largest coal producers in the nation, Murray Energy, filed for bankruptcy protection, sending the United Mine Workers pension fund into further uncertainty and putting pressure on public officials to act quickly to fund miners’ pensions.

The United Mine Workers of America has warned that, without action, the pension fund will become insolvent by 2022. Murray’s bankruptcy only made things more dire.

If the fund became insolvent, beneficiaries would instead depend on the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, forcing taxpayers to foot the bill and throwing the PBGC into its own financial crisis.

McConnell’s bill is designed to avoid that transfer, but is different from other previously-introduced pension legislation in that it does not reinstitute a tax on coal companies to fund the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which provides health benefits and small stipends to miners afflicted by black lung disease, and to their widows.

A bill previously introduced by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV, to shore up miners pensions would have restored the tax.

The Black Lung fund was thrown into financial jeopardy this year when Congress allowed the per-ton tax that coal companies pay into the fund to be cut in half. Advocates for black lung-afflicted miners have urged McConnell to reinstitute the tax to its full amount, saying that without action, thousands of miners could lose access to health care.

During a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Manchin said he planned to pick up the black lung excise tax separately “at a later date.”

Stephanie Penn, McConnell’s spokeswoman, said the senator is committed to ensuring that Black Lung Trust Fund benefits are maintained.

“While the temporary, higher tax expired last year, current benefits for our impacted miners and their families have remained at prior levels,” Penn said. “Senator McConnell and his staff have been working closely with interested parties regarding future funding for the program, and will continue to ensure these important benefits are maintained.”

The Bipartisan American Miners Act of 2019, if it passes, would secure the pensions of 92,000 retired and working coal miners and ensure health care for 12,000 retirees who could have lost it as a result of Murray’s bankruptcy, according to backers of the bill.

Manchin said the average monthly pension payment is about $600.

“With this one bill, the United States Senate has taken a giant, bipartisan step forward in keeping America’s promise to our coal miners and their families,” said UMWA President Cecil E. Roberts. “I am especially thankful for Leader McConnell’s support of this legislation. His voice on behalf of retired miners is critical, and I want to thank him on behalf of every retired miner in America.”

The act will amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to transfer additional money from the Abandoned Mine Land fund to the 1974 Pension Plan, according to a news release from McConnell’s office.

Currently, transfers are capped at $490 million per year and can only be used for miners’ health care benefits. The bill would raise the cap to $750 million, and allow them to be used for the pension plan in addition to health care benefits.

The funding would not come out of money set aside for reclamation purposes.

McConnell’s bill, along with shoring up the UMWA pension, will also expand existing health care benefits provided under the HELP for Coal Miners Health Care Act of 2017.

“To help these Kentucky miners and their families, Senators Manchin, Capito, and I proudly introduced our bill today to help prevent this looming pension crisis,” McConnell said. “I personally raised with President Trump the importance of protecting these coal miners’ pensions and health retirement benefits, and I am committed to continuing to work with him and my colleagues in Congress towards a solution.”

Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service project made possible in Eastern Kentucky with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Based in Pikeville, Wright joined the Herald-Leader in January 2018 and reports on Eastern Kentucky.
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