The pension fund for thousands of retired coal miners is at risk of going insolvent by 2022, and this marks the 9th consecutive year miners have asked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) to take immediate action on their behalf.
According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, miners want McConnell to back a solution to the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) 1974 Pension Plan in order to keep it solvent in the future. However, McConnell says he wants a broader fix to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation — which insures millions of Americans enrolled in defined benefit pension plans.
Phil Smith, the chief lobbyist for UMWA, says the crisis miners are facing is too urgent to wait for a fix that could likely take many years to finalize. Should the fund go insolvent, miners would be dropped into the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which would overwhelm the entity and result in taxpayers footing the bill for its solvency, rather than the private companies currently funding it.
Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) has proposed legislation dubbed the American Miners Act of 2019 that has bipartisan support, including from Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), and Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia), among others. Manchin’s office claims the bill would protect the pensions of 87,000 current beneficiaries and 20,000 others who have vested for pensions but have not yet begun drawing them.
Ultimately, the American Miners Act would amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to raise the cap on the Abandoned Mine Land fund from $490 million to $750 million. The funding would primarily come from implementing a 10-year extension on the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund tax at $1.10 per ton of underground-mined coal and $0.55 per ton of surface-mined coal, according to a fact sheet from Sen. Manchin’s office.
“Our coal miners made a commitment to provide our nation with the energy we needed to power our nation to prosperity. They did so time and time again even when it risked their health and their lives,” Manchin stated in a press release. “We cannot continue to allow these solutions to be put off again and again. Our retirees and their widows deserve better than that. For these retired miners, their pensions and healthcare benefits are the difference between paying their mortgage or being kicked out of their home. It’s the difference between putting food on their tables or going hungry.”
The miners’ pension crisis has been exacerbated by bankruptcies of coal mining companies, as well as an overall decline in the coal mining industry overall. The Herald-Leader reports that there are now more retirees in the mining industry than there are active miners.
McConnell spokesperson Robert Steurer told the Herald-Leader that while he understands miners’ concerns, their request is “best addressed through a broader bipartisan and bicameral pension reform effort.” McConnell is up for re-election in 2020, and coal miners and their families remain a significantly large constituency in his home state.
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.