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White House encourages passage of UMW benefit bill

CAROLYN KASTER | AP
White House press secretary Josh Earnest speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House on Thursday.

The White House on Thursday urged congressional Republicans to provide a long-term funding fix for the troubled health care and pension plans that serve tens of thousands of the nation’s retired coal miners, calling it “quite cynical” that leading lawmakers would so far agree only to four months of help for a crisis faced by a constituency they played to heavily during the just-completed election campaign.

“Democrats are ready to solve this problem, and it’s not lost on me, the irony, that Republicans are bragging about the kind of support they have from workers in coal country, particular retirees in coal country, and now are prepared to just extend their health care for [four] months,” President Barack Obama’s press secretary Josh Earnest said when asked about the issue during a daily press briefing.

“So, you know, we’ll have to see exactly whether or not that’s something that Republicans in Congress can fix before they send the bill to the White House,” Earnest said.

In the House, Republican leaders passed an emergency spending bill — aimed at avoiding a looming federal government shutdown — without adding a permanent funding measure the United Mine Workers is seeking for health care and pension plans serving 120,000 current and future retired miners and their families.

The spending bill now goes to the Senate, where Democrats including Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have vowed to try to stop all other legislation unless Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky gives them an up-or-down vote on the long-term miner benefit and pension language.

“We are still fighting alongside our allies in the Senate to stop this travesty,” said Phil Smith, a UMW spokesman.

Retired miners and their families are facing uncertainty because a key UMW pension plan remains severely underfunded following huge investment losses during the 2008 Wall Street financial collapse.

The ongoing downturn in the coal industry has also forced some major producers into bankruptcy court, where they were able to legally shed their pension and health care benefit liabilities.

Also in immediate trouble because of bankruptcy court rulings in favor of coal companies are the health care benefits for 22,000 retired miners who worked for companies like Patriot Coal, Arch Coal and Peabody Energy. More than 16,000 of those retirees are facing the loss of their benefits after Dec. 31. Another 2,500 will lose their benefits in March and 4,000 more in August, according to the UMW.

UMW-backed legislation called the Miners Protection Act would allow the pensions and benefits to be funded through part of a transfer of up to $490 million a year in general tax dollars that already flow through the federal Abandoned Mine Land program annually, as part of the complex formula that provides additional money for the abandoned mine cleanup program and UMW health care benefit programs.

In September, the bill easily passed through the Senate Finance Committee, and its 25 co-sponsors include 11 Republicans, including West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito.

The House spending bill, though, provides only $45 million to provide health care benefits through April. It includes no fix for the union’s pension plan and the health care benefit money it does provide it takes from an existing union benefit program that covers a different group of retirees.

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said Thursday that the short-term bill provides UMW families “little relief” and that he was deeply disturbed that this bill does not include a long-term solution. McKinley blamed the crisis faced by UMW retirees on “excessive regulations that forced their former employers into bankruptcy,” though most experts have said coal’s downturn was caused more by competition with low-priced natural gas than government rules.

Speaking on the House floor, McKinley said threatening to stop the spending bill was not a solution and asked House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., to commit to working toward a long-term answer when lawmakers return in January.

“I am committed to working with you and other members representing coal country to arrive at a lasting solution to this problem in the new Congress and provide some lasting relief to our coal fields which have suffered so much in the last eight years,” Rogers responded.

The Miners Protection Act is the most recent in a long line of federal government actions aimed at protecting coal miners, whose work often leaves them sick or disabled, but whose industry has frequently tried to dodge long-term liabilities for health care benefits and pensions.

Government involvement dates back to the 1940s, when creation of a health and welfare fund for miners through a deal between legendary UMW President John L. Lewis and then-Interior Secretary Julius A. Krug helped end a stalemate between the union and the government, which had seized the nation’s mines in response to a strike.

More recently, Congress passed legislation in 1992 to preserve benefits for UMW retirees, as coal companies tried to abandon the union’s national contract and benefit programs. And since 1995, interest on the federal AML program’s trust fund — a fund that comes from coal industry taxes — was diverted to ensure health care benefits for retirees.

A long-term fix for the UMW benefits programs was part of the Obama administration’s plan to provide financial help to struggling coalfield communities, and was part of a similar plan proposed by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. President-elect Donald Trump is not known to have mentioned the issue publicly during his campaign.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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