Politics & Government

Spending bill includes assistance for struggling coal regions

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., joins other House Republicans for a closed-door strategy session on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 16 2015, as lawmakers work to complete end-of-the-year business and pass a comprehensive spending bill. Congressional leaders are preparing to push a Christmas compromise on tax cuts and spending through the House and Senate by week's end after Republicans and Democrats reached agreement on a legislative package extending dozens of tax breaks for businesses and families and financing 2016 government operations.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., joins other House Republicans for a closed-door strategy session on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 16 2015, as lawmakers work to complete end-of-the-year business and pass a comprehensive spending bill. Congressional leaders are preparing to push a Christmas compromise on tax cuts and spending through the House and Senate by week's end after Republicans and Democrats reached agreement on a legislative package extending dozens of tax breaks for businesses and families and financing 2016 government operations. AP

The $1.1 trillion spending package passed by both houses of Congress on Friday includes $30 million for Kentucky’s coal producing regions to redevelop abandoned mine sites with an eye toward boosting the economy.

The provision was pushed by Kentucky Rep. Hal Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and is part of a $90 million pilot program that also helps coal communities in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

In a statement after the House voted 316-113 to approve the bill, Rogers called it “a solid package that reflects the priorities of the American people.” The Senate later approved the measure 65-33.

The spending bill containing the funds didn’t have unanimous support in the Kentucky delegation, though: Republican Reps. Thomas Massie and Ed Whitfield voted against it, as did Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate.

The spending package also contains $10 million in Appalachian Regional Commission funding to increase broadband access in Appalachian counties, which has been a key piece of an initiative called Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, that Rogers and former Gov. Steve Beshear started to try to improve Eastern Kentucky’s economy.

In addition, the budget includes $15 million in Economic Development Assistance funds for areas affected by the downturn in the coal business, and supports grants for job training programs for laid-off mine workers.

That money is going to get some things going here in Kentucky.

Eric Dixon of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center

Eric Dixon, who is with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg said the $30 million appropriation to reclaim abandoned mine lands is a “great first step” in helping eastern Kentucky coal communities reconstruct the region’s tattered economy.

“That money is going to get some things going here in Kentucky,” Dixon said.

Rogers’ committee said the intent for the funding is that states will speed up remediation of abandoned mine sites “with economic and community development end uses in mind.”

That could include reclaiming sites to be used for forestry, agriculture or tourism, for instance.

The money for the pilot program comes in addition to regular funding to the states from the federal abandoned mine land fund.

Dixon said he still supports a separate proposal by President Barack Obama to speed up the release of $1 billion from the abandoned mine land fund over five years to help communities hurt by the sharp drop in coal jobs.

Kentucky will get more money in one year under the pilot program included in the budget than it would have gotten in a year under Obama’s proposal, called the Power Plus plan. It was part of the president’s fiscal year 2016 budget request but was not included in the legislation Congress approved Friday.

However, the concern is that the pilot program might not be renewed, Dixon said.

The state would have been set to receive a total of about $100 million over five years under Obama’s plan, said Dixon.

Dixon said 26 cities, counties or local groups in four Appalachian states, including 12 in Kentucky, have approved resolutions supporting the Power Plus plan since late summer.

Supporters hope the money for the pilot program will pave the way to approval for Obama’s proposal.

“We can do better,” Dixon said.

The Floyd County Fiscal Court was among those that endorsed the Power Plus plan. Still, Judge-Executive Ben Hale, a Democrat, applauded Rogers for the pilot program.

“That is an excellent thing,” Hale said. “We need it.”

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

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