State

Appalachian Regional Commission budget request largest in more than three decades, chairman says

Superintendent Jackie Ratliff, a coal miner of 25 years, holds coal running through a processing plant Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015, in Welch, W.Va. Central Appalachia’s struggle is familiar to many rural regions across the U.S., where middle-class jobs are disappearing or gone and young people have no other choice than to leave to find opportunity. But the problems are amplified in coal country, where these difficult economic and social conditions have gripped the region for decades and where there is hardly any flat land to build anything.
Superintendent Jackie Ratliff, a coal miner of 25 years, holds coal running through a processing plant Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015, in Welch, W.Va. Central Appalachia’s struggle is familiar to many rural regions across the U.S., where middle-class jobs are disappearing or gone and young people have no other choice than to leave to find opportunity. But the problems are amplified in coal country, where these difficult economic and social conditions have gripped the region for decades and where there is hardly any flat land to build anything. Associated Press

The funding request for the Appalachian Regional Commission is the largest in more than three decades, according to its co-chairman.

President Barack Obama proposed $120 million for the agency in the budget he released Tuesday for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

Of that, $70 million would be for programs across the 13 states where ARC tries to promote economic development, said ARC federal co-chairman Earl F. Gohl.

The other $50 million would be targeted for use in areas hurt by a drop in coal jobs and by related job losses at coal-fired power plants or in coal supply-chain industries, such as railroads.

Eastern Kentucky is a key example. Coal-mining jobs in the region have dropped by more than half since early 2012, and CSX announced in October it would close its mechanical shops in Corbin and lay off 180 workers because of a drop in coal traffic on the railroad.

The administration calls the funding focused on coal communities the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or POWER, initiative.

It is designed to provide money to more than half a dozen federal agencies, including ARC, for projects aimed at diversifying local and regional economies, such as re-training laid-off workers, helping entrepreneurs and expanding access to high-speed Internet service.

“What we have here is an incredible opportunity for strategic investment in Appalachia,” Gohl said in an interview with the Herald-Leader.

ARC received a similar $50 million in the current budget for the initiative.

State agencies, local governments and community organizations can apply for the money, which is awarded through a competitive process.

Several agencies and organizations in Kentucky received grant awards through the POWER initiative last year.

The grants included $3 million to the state to try to boost economic opportunities that could come from building a high-speed broadband network in Eastern Kentucky; more than $500,000 for the Kentucky Center for Agricultural and Rural Development for a project aimed at improving markets for small farmers; $275,000 for Appalshop, in Whitesburg, to develop a program to train people in tech jobs; and $1.2 million to WestCare to expand substance-abuse treatment in Pike County.

The POWER program is a piece of a larger proposal by Obama to help places hurt by a transition away from coal.

Obama first made that proposal, called POWER+, last year. Congress funded pieces of it, but not all.

Obama renewed the proposal in the budget request released Tuesday, including a request to speed up the release of $1 billion from the federal abandoned mine land fund for reclamation projects designed to improve economic conditions, rather than just fix problems such as landslides at abandoned mines.

Examples could include reclaiming an abandoned mine for use as a business site or for agriculture.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican who represents Eastern Kentucky and chairs the House Appropriations Committee, filed legislation last week that would accomplish the same release of $1 billion over five years.

Supporters hope having Rogers and the White House both working for the proposal will increase the chance of getting it passed this year.

Obama also renewed a call for funding to shore up funding for health and pension plans administered by the United Mine Workers of America that the White House said cover more than 100,000 retired coal miners and their families.

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