Some say that the Murray Energy bankruptcy filing last week spurred a bipartisan coalition of politicians in D.C. to introduce a bill on Wednesday to secure the pensions for nearly 90,000 retired coal miners. There is urgent financial trouble afoot, apparently.
Others, perhaps cynically, say that it took a Republican governor losing his reelection bid in a coal-mining state – Kentucky – to get Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to lend his support for the sudden legislation. Politics at play?
Regardless of the perspective, the bill – the Bipartisan American Miners Act, co-sponsored by McConnell and West Virginia Senators Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Shelly Moore Capito, a Republican – leaves much to be desired. Any politician who represents the interests of coal mining families and a coal mining state should be asking for more, much more, because the political calendar is on their side.
The United Mine Workers of America health and retirement fund covers retirees whose employers went out of business before 2007. The bill making the rounds addresses pensions for all of those retired miners and ensures health care for 12,000 retirees. But it does not consider the future of the federal program that provides medical coverage for miners suffering black lung disease.
Also, the proposed legislation would transfer funds from the federal abandoned mine lands program to cover the shortfall in the pension fund. Once again, West Virginia’s environment – a healthy one is needed if tourism is going to take root and help grow the local economy – would suffer at the hands of politicians who almost always pull the strings for their wealthy campaign benefactors. If Republican lawmakers can give generous tax breaks to the wealthy elite, as they did two Decembers ago, they can find monies elsewhere – and should do so – so that we here in the Mountain State can continue repairing the ruins left by negligent coal companies.
The bankruptcy filing last week by Murray, the nation’s largest privately held coal mining company, was expected to hasten the insolvency of the pension fund. Eight other coal companies have filed for bankruptcy over the last two years as natural gas has taken over as the primary fuel for U.S. power plants. Renewable sources of energy, too, are gaining market share in the nation’s power portfolio. Some experts see the fund going bust as early as next year.
The fund is troubled, no doubt, largely because of the industry’s decline. With lost production and bankruptcies multiplying, the Murray filing has pushed the fund further out onto a precarious precipice.
But here is the leverage: McConnell, a conservative Republican known as a master manipulator of the political process, is up for reelection next year. At home, his favorability numbers in recent polling – 24 percent – were 10 percentage points below those of Gov. Matt Bevin, the guy who just got his hat handed to him in a state that is reliably right of center – by a country mile. We assume that McConnell saw, as election results began rolling in, whole counties in the eastern coal mining regions of his state turning from Republican red to Democratic blue. Might miners see that Robert Murray is making off with his millions while their pensions go poof in bankruptcy proceedings? Might McConnell be concerned that he, too, could face the same fate as Bevin if he does not score points for those politically wayward miners? Is that a debate – denying coal miners support for the black lung fund – he wants during an election year?
Is that the conversation President Trump wants to hear in the coal mining swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2020?
Well, that is exactly the political fight the UMWA and Democratic politicians should be prepared to wage.
At great risk to their health and wellbeing, the nation’s retired coal miners took care of America. And what does West Virginia have now to show for it? Go ahead and take a look around.
Now’s the time to hand McConnell the bill.
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