Rand Paul quips as coal miners’ retirement and health plans teeter

As thousands of union coal miners rallied at the U.S. Capitol urging Congress to approve a bipartisan plan to protect their retirement and health-care benefits, Sen. Rand Paul tweeted that the Clinton Foundation should “shore up miner’s pensions” because “her agenda ... bankrupted the coal industry.”

Paul’s flip response to the serious problem facing many of his constituents evaded the question of whether he supports the Miners Protection Act.

A number of Paul’s fellow coal state Republicans have pledged to support the legislation, including Rep. Andy Barr of Kentucky, who spoke at the United Mine Workers of America rally, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia and most recently Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton reiterated her support for the legislation Thursday. Paul’s Democratic challenger Lexington Mayor Jim Gray has been on record supporting it. Republican nominee Donald Trump has said nothing.

A statement issued by Paul’s office was vague, saying only that he is “committed to finding a solution to support Kentucky’s coal miners and their families” and that the “most important thing we can do” is fight “EPA’s overzealous regulations.” Paul’s spokeswoman told Herald-Leader reporter Daniel Desrochers that she didn’t know how her boss would vote on the legislation.

Paul’s shopworn spiel may still work in parts of Kentucky, but it’s no solution for the retirees and their communities. EPA could disappear in a puff of coal dust, the coal companies that have used bankruptcy to shed their obligations to workers could reorganize under new names, and 110,000 miners and their dependents would be in the same fix.

The teetering pension and health funds pump $100 million a year into Kentucky, in places hardest hit by the coal industry’s decline. Hard, dangerous work earned the average pension of $560 a month for retired coal miners and their widows, including 9,500 in Kentucky. Even more urgent, without congressional action, health care benefits from bankrupt coal companies for 21,000 people, including 3,200 Kentuckians, will begin running out at the end of this year.

The 2008 market crash and the coal industry bankruptcies pummeled the funds which union actuaries say taxpayers can return to soundness over 15 years by an annual infusion of $155 million. That’s a bargain compared with letting the funds go belly up, costing the federal Pension Benefits Guaranty Corp., which insures pensions, $4.6 billion and probably collapsing it, at a huge cost to taxpayers.

Some Republicans in Congress oppose the measure because they are unabashedly anti-union. Some warn that other multi-employer pension plans are in trouble and that “bailing out” the miners would set a dangerous precedent. But the miners fund is different. Because retirees so greatly outnumber active workers and because many of the miners are older and disabled, the provisions of the 2014 Multiemployer Pension Reform Act won’t work for the UMWA pensions.

The Miners Protection Act will work, it’s ready and has been since last December when another Kentuckian, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, killed it.

The Senate Finance Committee finally has agreed to mark up the bill, probably next week. Most observers say its fate rests with McConnell, who, unlike Paul, wields more than his mouth in Congress. McConnell should put some muscle behind all his pro-miner rhetoric.