Capito, Manchin Secure Hope for Vote on UMW Pension Bill

The United Mine Workers union is praising an agreement in the U.S. Senate that may pave the way for action on legislation aimed at rescuing troubled union pension and retiree health-care plans that cover tens of thousands of retired miners and family members.

UMW President Cecil Roberts said that he was encouraged by the agreement — secured with work by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. — but also called on Congress to move forward quickly with a vote on the bill.

“These retirees need to have some sense of comfort that their Congress is working for them instead of continuing to wonder if they will have the health care and pensions they were promised,” Roberts said in a prepared statement. “Congress needs to hold the vote and pass the bill.”

Under the agreement reached Wednesday evening, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, pledged to take up the bill in committee as early as July and no later than Sept. 30.

“Although I am happy we have secured a vote, we now must work to make this vital legislation law to make sure that our miners never receive those notices,” Manchin said in a statement.

The deal came after Manchin, Capito and a bipartisan group of other senators opposed a vote to end debate and move forward with a vote on a measure to address Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.

“While Puerto Rico is facing a financial crisis and I have great empathy for what is going on there, I cannot vote for cloture on the Puerto Rico bill until I get some certainty that we are going to move in a positive direction,” Capito said during a Senate floor discussion of the issue on Tuesday.

Retired miners are facing uncertainty because a key UMW pension plan is severely underfunded because of losses during the 2008 Wall Street financial crisis and the downturn in the coal industry that has forced some major operators into bankruptcy court. If the plan becomes insolvent, the miners and their families face benefit cuts and the federal Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. will assume billions of dollars in liabilities.

About 89,000 miners or family members currently receive pensions, and another 22,000 have vested in the plan, but are not yet receiving pensions, said UMW spokesman Phil Smith.

Also in financial trouble are the health-care benefits of about 22,000 miners who could see those benefits cut off by the end of the year because of coal industry bankruptcies.

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 flows through the federal Abandoned Mine Land program, as part of the complex formula that provides additional money for the abandoned mine cleanup program and UMW benefit programs.

Efforts to attach the miners’ bill to other legislation were blocked late last year by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

“Now that there is an agreement to move forward in the Senate Finance Committee, I call on the committee to take up this bill and hold the mark-up without delay,” said the UMW’s Roberts. “I see no reason why the committee can’t take action within the next two weeks, before Congress leaves town for the summer.”

By:  Ken Ward, Jr.
Source: Charleston Gazette-Mail