March 08, 2019

Lawmakers Push Competing Visions for Helping Miners | E&E News

Republican West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito yesterday released the GOP fix for the troubled pensions of more than 100,000 retired union coal miners.

Capito's S. 671 mirrors H.R. 935, which Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) introduced earlier this year to rescue United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) pension plans expected to be insolvent by 2022.

Both dubbed the "Miners Pension Protection Act," the bills would dip into taxpayer dollars set aside for the Abandoned Mine Land cleanup program, while increasing the total available from $490 million to $750 million.

It is the same funding mechanism proposed by West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in S. 27. Capito and Manchin have long worked in lockstep to safeguard miner pensions, an issue hitting their state harder than any other.

But Capito and co-sponsor Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) stopped short of the "American Miners Act" backed by Senate Democrats — showcasing bipartisan hopes but divergent tactics.

Manchin wants to solve two more coal-related problems at once. First, his bill would cover health care benefits for miners whose former companies went bankrupt last year and are cutting coverage.

Former Westmoreland Coal Co. and Mission Coal Co. LLC workers could join a wider pool of miners whose benefits have been federally guaranteed since 2017. House Democrats have looked to do the same with specific legislation, H.R. 934 (E&E Daily, April 27, 2017).

Second, Manchin wants to restore the black lung tax rate to 2017 levels. The tax, which pays health benefits for roughly 25,000 miners also abandoned by bankrupt companies, was cut in half at the end of last year.

"I'm all for keeping that going," Capito said of the black lung tax in the Capitol yesterday, but she has concerns about the specifics of restoring the increased rate. Her bill solely addresses pensions.

Union miners have argued that a series of federal actions dating back to 1946 constitute a "promise" to safeguard their benefits, but GOP fiscal hawks and the Heritage Foundation see no difference between the UMWA and droves of multi-employer pension funds left at risk by the 2008 financial recession.

Congress has attempted to tackle the entire pension crisis, but a special joint committee failed to reach a deal last year (E&E News PM, Nov. 29, 2018).

The House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions held a hearing yesterday to restart discussions.

"As our witnesses have made clear, Congress cannot afford to wait any longer, we must put aside our differences and act on a bipartisan solution to this crisis," Chairwoman Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) said.

Ranking member Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) agreed.

"In all our deliberations, I hope we will promote reality," he said. "Reality about the urgency of proper action — I think you and I understand that that is not defined as political posturing."


By:  Dylan Brown