January 18, 2017

Bipartisan coalition of senators introduces Miners Protection Act | Beckley Register Herald

West Virginia's U.S. Senators joined their counterparts from other states Tuesday to introduce the Miners Protection Act.

The legislation would ensure that the federal government and coal operators honor their obligation of lifetime pensions and health benefits to retired miners and their families who are facing uncertainty as a result of the financial crisis and corporate bankruptcies. In December, the Senate passed a continuing resolution that included a four-month proposal to fund retired miners healthcare for the duration of the continuing resolution, which ends in April.

Joining Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito in the legislation are Mark Warner, D-Va.; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.; Bob Casey, D-Pa.; Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.; Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Tim Kaine, D-Va.; and Joe Donnelly, D-Ind. 

“Although I was disappointed when the Senate passed a short-term fix to this long-term problem, I was encouraged when Majority Leader McConnell committed to securing a permanent fix for retired miners and their families,” Sen. Manchin said. “I have also received assurances from President-Elect Trump and Vice President-Elect Pence that they would work with me on securing a permanent health care solution for miners. That is why re-introducing the Miners Protection Act in the new Congress is so important."

Manchin added that coal miners are some of the hardest working people in America, and they have dedicated their lives to powering this nation and keeping it the strongest in the world. 

"We have a responsibility to protect their hard-earned pensions and health benefits," he said.

Capito said that she too was disappointed that the continuing resolution the Senate passed was for only four months. 

"I am committed to working with my colleagues in the Trump administration and Congress to protect health benefits for West Virginia’s miners, and the bill I am introducing today is the first step to making that a reality. At the same time, we must also advance policies that will put our miners back to work and rebuild local economies that rely on energy production," said Capito.

Other cosponsors include Sen. Jon Tester, (D-Mont.; Patty Murray, (D-Wash.; Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Al Franken, D-Minn.; Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.; Bill Nelson, D-Fla.; Richard Burr, R- N.C.; and Dan Sullivan, (R-Alaska. 

Retired miners are facing uncertainty because the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) 1974 Pension Plan is severely underfunded. Unlike other public and private pension plans, the 1974 Pension Plan was well-managed and funded prior to the 2008 financial crisis, which hit at a time when this Plan had its highest payment obligations, according a release from Manchin's office.

This – coupled with the fact that 60 percent of the beneficiaries are “orphan” retirees whose employers are no longer in the coal business, and the fact that there are only 10,000 active workers for 120,000 retirees – has placed the Plan on the road to insolvency. If the Plan becomes insolvent, these beneficiaries face benefit cuts and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation will assume billions of dollars in liabilities.

To address these issues, the Miners Protection Act would:

• Amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to transfer funds in excess of the amounts needed to meet existing obligations under the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund to the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan to prevent its insolvency.

• Make certain retirees who lose health care benefits following the bankruptcy or insolvency of his or her employer eligible for the 1993 Benefit Plan. The assets of Voluntary Employee Benefit Association (VEBA) created following the Patriot Coal bankruptcy would be transferred to the 1993 Benefit Plan to reduce transfers from the AML fund.