By Timothy Cama
October 3, 2017 - Coal-country lawmakers launched a new effort Tuesday to pass legislation to shore up pensions for thousands of coal miners and their families.
The bipartisan group led by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) introduced a new bill that would use excess funds meant for mine cleanups and borrow some general Treasury money to pay for pension checks.
The effort revives the heated debate over whether and how to bail out the United Mine Workers of America’s (UMWA) pension fund, which is in danger of going insolvent due to a rash of coal mining company bankruptcies that have reduced the money going into it, putting more than 100,000 beneficiaries at risk.
Since the pension program originated from a federal government effort, coal-state lawmakers see it as a federal responsibility to keep it solvent.
“It’s time that we keep our promise, that’s all we’re asking for,” Manchin, who is running next year in one of the Senate’s toughest reelection battles, said at a Capitol Hill news conference with retired miners and allied lawmakers.
“We’ve got to fix this, and we’ve got to make sure that we take care of the people who paid for it,” he said.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Reps. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) joined Manchin at the event, and other lawmakers have jumped on as original cosponsors.
“This is something that has been earned, promised and counted upon,” Capito said.
The lawmakers and miners made a major effort last year to shore up both health care and pension obligation funds managed by UMWA. They eventually dropped the pension side, since the health benefits were closer to being insolvent and more urgent.
Now, Manchin and his colleagues are pushing to finish the job on pensions.
The bill, the American Miners Pension Act, would shift some money out of the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund and into the pension fund. It would also borrow some money from the Treasury, but it envisions paying that back in 30 years.
The strongest opposition in Congress is likely to come from Wyoming and other western coal states.
Those states are the most active coal producers currently, so their mining companies are paying the most into the AML. Lawmakers there have argued in the past that it would be unfair to help Appalachian miners with the money paid by companies in the West.
The lawmakers backing Tuesday’s bill recognized that they would meet opposition from the West.
“This is the beginning, and this is where we have our work cut out for us … to work with our fellow coal-mining communities,” Capito said, adding that she and her colleagues are open to negotiating for changes.