Senate committee acts to protect miner pensions

OREANDA-NEWS. September 22, 2016. The Senate Finance Committee today advanced a bill that would shore up retired coal miners' pension funds and healthcare benefits.

The committee voted 18-8 to pass the Miners Protection Act of 2016 without amendment. The bill, S 1714, attracted bipartisan support although all eight "no" votes came from panel Republicans.

The issue of protecting retired mine workers compensation has taken on greater urgency in recent years as market conditions weakened and companies entered bankruptcy proceedings. Legislation to try to shore up workers' benefits appears to have support from both parties, including from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

But it is unclear if the bill will become law, or even when it could be considered by the full Senate. Majority leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Kentucky) office said it has not decided when to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

The bill, which was introduced by senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) last year, would amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to allow interest earned by the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund and certain other funds to be transferred to the Multiemployer Health Benefit Fund and the 1974 United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Pension Plan. The transfers would be used to shore up healthcare and pension funds for retired coal miners who are currently enrolled in the plan, or whose benefits would be reduced as a result of coal company bankruptcy proceedings.

"Tens of thousands of mine workers and their families and widows are headed for a cliff at the end of this year," said senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon). "This legislation has to get to the president's desk."

A spokesperson for the Senate Finance Committee's minority staff office said the office is confident that the bill can pass the Senate. "This a bipartisan measure," the person said.

But some Republicans are concerned that the legislation sets the government up for bailing out other troubled pension plans.

The bill would "set a dangerous precedent," said senator Michael Enzi (R-Wyoming). There are thousands of underfunded plans, he said. "Providing federal assistance for a private pension plan has never occurred before in the history of the country."

Republican senators said many of the problems with the pension fund were caused by environmental regulations implemented under President Barack Obama.

But senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) said the root of the pension problems was the 2008 financial crisis. The UMWA pension fund had been 90pc funded in 2008, but it lost so much money that it was only on track to meet 72pc of its pension obligations after the crisis.

A similar bill, the Coal Healthcare and Pensions Protection Act of 2015 (HR 2403), has been sitting with the House Natural Resources subcommittee on energy and mineral resources for more than a year. Sponsor David McKinley (R-West Virginia) said the bill could gain momentum once the Senate votes on its measure.