Energy & Environment

Senate panel approves pension rescue for coal miners

Greg Nash

The Senate Finance Committee voted Wednesday to rescue the coal miners union’s pension plan and avoid its likely insolvency by the end of the year.

The panel advanced a bill, known as the Miners Protection Act, that would transfer hundreds of millions of dollars from a federal fund meant for cleaning abandoned mines to the United Mine Workers of America’s (UMWA) multi-employer pension plan.

{mosads}Supporters of the bipartisan bill said it fulfills promises that the federal government has made to coal miners for decades.

But some Republicans warned that the bill would set a dangerous precedent in which Congress would be expected to bail out the more than 1,000 multi-employer pension plans at risk of insolvency.

If Congress doesn’t pass the legislation by the end of the year, some 20,000 coal miners and their families could also lose healthcare benefits that rely on the same funding mechanism as the pensions. The pensions of about 100,000 miners would be at risk in the following months.

The looming insolvency is due to the precipitous drop in demand for coal in recent years, leading many mining companies to file for bankruptcy and reducing the amount of money going into the pension fund.

The bill passed 18-8, with GOP Sens. Orrin Hatch (Utah), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Pat Roberts (Kan.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Rob Portman (Ohio) and Pat Toomey (Pa.) voting with all Democrats in favor.

“Today, tens of thousands of mine workers and their families, including so many widows, are in serious danger of losing that lifeline, losing that security,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the top Democrat on the Finance Committee.

“These are hard-working people who come from communities where broken promises, bad policies and bankruptcies have hit like one wrecking ball after another for decades,” he said. “Congress, in my view, has an obligation to step in and make good on the promise that America made back in 1946.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said “there’s no question that we’re running out of time to prevent thousands of coal miners and their surviving spouses from losing their benefits.” But she pushed her colleagues to also take action to prevent the loss of benefits from other at-risk plans.

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) acknowledged the poor state of the UMWA’s pension plan but blamed it on anti-coal policies of the Obama administration.

“The bill helps only some of the thousands of miners who are hurting because of the administration’s war on fossil fuels. They’d rather have their jobs back,” he said.

The Miners Protection Act, Enzi said, doesn’t solve the problem.

“Rather than addressing the thousands of underfunded pension plans, today, we’re considering one bill that helps one underfunded plan, and it does so at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer,” he said.

Toomey agreed with Enzi’s assessment of the administration’s anti-coal policies but supported the legislation nonetheless.

“The administration decided they wanted to put these people out of work,” he said. “They decided they wanted to bankrupt this industry. And sadly, they’ve been pretty successful so far.”

Toomey, who is running in one of the closest Senate races, had withheld support for the legislation until this month.

When his Democratic opponent, Katie McGinty, started to attack him out for not supporting the bill, he publicly endorsed it but said it was far from ideal.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has also not publicly endorsed the legislation, though he has hinted that he would allow a vote on the Senate floor if the Finance Committee were to pass it.

Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), sponsor of a similar bill in the House, said his chamber would easily pass the legislation if the Senate does.

“We’re going to be fine in the House,” McKinley said at a rally this month. “But we’ve got to get past the opposition in the Senate.” 

Tags Coal David McKinley Debbie Stabenow Mike Crapo Mike Enzi Miners Protection Act Mitch McConnell Orrin Hatch Pat Roberts pensions Richard Burr Rob Portman Ron Wyden

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