Congress must not forsake coal miners

More than 3,500 United Mine Workers of America members, many of them elderly and infirm, rallied in Lexington Tuesday. They heard speakers make a good point:

The coal-miners’ pension fund that’s in danger of insolvency, unless Congress acts, was healthy and 93 percent funded in 2007. Then the bottom fell out of the financial markets, wiping out billions in pension assets. Congress bailed out the Wall Street banks whose recklessness tanked the economy.

Coal miners, who earned their benefits in one of this country’s most dangerous and vital jobs, are asking only for what they are owed. Surely, they too deserve Congress’ consideration — especially when the proposed solution is so easy and so much cheaper to taxpayers than allowing the plan to go under would be.

The legislation to rescue the miners’ benefits has bipartisan support. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, is one of the co-sponsors and spoke to the rally by video. The Senate version was introduced by West Virginia’s senators, one of whom is a Democrat, the other a Republican.

It’s baffling that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not given the nod for the Senate Finance Committee to move the bill so the full Senate can vote on it. The loss of pension income and health benefits would wallop coalfield communities already reeling from the industry’s decline. The longer the fix is delayed, the more expensive it becomes.

Contacted after the rally, McConnell’s office issued a statement saying he “remains committed to helping ensure the retirement security of our nation’s retirees, including coal miners” and that the issue “deserves open, transparent debate through the regular order committee process.”

One theory is that non-union coal companies, including some big political donors, are holding up the legislation because they think it would relieve their unionized competitors of an expense.

But the legislation requires companies that signed contracts with the union to continue paying into the benefits funds at the current rate. So any concern about competitive advantage is unfounded.

All Congress is being asked to do is include the UMWA pension fund in a law that tapped existing coal industry fees to shore up the UMWA health fund in 1992. In 2006, Congress approved a permanent appropriation for miners health benefits of $490 million a year from a fee the industry pays for mine cleanups, but some years less than half of that amount is used.

The union’s actuaries say the pension fund can be restored to soundness over 15 years by transferring $2.3 billion or about $155 million a year from those existing and unspent revenues from the coal industry. If they fell short, taxpayers would pick up the difference — a bargain since the alternative could cost double that.

If the UMWA fund goes belly up, the cost to the federal Pension Benefits Guaranty Corp. would be $4.6 billion. Miners would not get their full pensions (now only an average $560 a month) and the guaranty corporation, which insures pensions, would go under.

Also, as a result of recent coal company bankruptcies, 22,000 miners and their dependents — including more than 3,000 in Kentucky — will lose their health benefits by the end of the year, unless Congress acts.

Congress should act.