By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
When they aren’t arguing about the new healthcare law or where the other raises money, likely foes in next year’s U.S. Senate race, incumbent Republican Mitch McConnell and Democrat Allison Lundergan Grimes, argue over who is the biggest supporter of the coal industry.
Now Grimes is asking McConnell to support a law before Congress to protect the health plans and pensions of retired miners who once worked for Patriot Coal and others before Patriot filed for bankruptcy.
Grimes sent McConnell a letter on Tuesday asking him to support the Coal Healthcare and Pensions Protection Act of 2013, a bill before the Republican-controlled House and sponsored by West Virginia Republican Rep. David McKinley. The bill has 127 co-sponsors from both parties, including Kentucky Republicans Andy Barr and Ed Whitfield.
“It’s time to put politics aside and move beyond rhetoric,” Grimes writes in the letter addressed to McConnell at his Washington, D.C. office. “I implore you to take the lead on this issue in the Senate and work across the aisle to fight for our Kentucky coal miners.”
Her letter lauds the work of miners and their families “who are the backbone of the (coal) industry” and who have “worked tirelessly their entire lives to fuel the Bluegrass State and strengthen our economy.”
McConnell’s campaign spokeswoman said McConnell supports the bill but doubts the Democratic majority in the Senate will allow a vote on it.
“Nobody has fought harder on behalf of Kentucky’s coal miners than Mitch McConnell,” said Allison Moore. “Along with Rep. Whitfield and Rep. Barr, Sen. McConnell supports the goals of House legislation ‘to keep the promises made to retired miners.’ And sadly, Alison must know that (Democratic Majority Leader) Harry Reid will never allow pro-coal legislation on the floor of the Senate as long as he remains Leader.”
Reid once said coal makes people sick, but he’s since held a fundraiser for Grimes who has repeatedly said she disagrees with President Barack Obama’s environmental and coal policies.
McConnell hopes to supplant Reid as majority leader if he is re-elected and Republicans win enough seats next year to gain a majority.
The bill is an effort by coal state legislators to protect retired miners’ health insurance and pensions in the wake of the bankruptcy petition by Patriot by transferring funds from the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to a fund for multi-employer health benefits and United Mine Workers of American pension plans.
Many of the affected miners once worked for Peabody Coal and Arch Coal but were transferred to Patriot when it was created in 2007. The UMWA has contended the company was set up to fail in order to release Peabody from its pension and retirement benefits.
In October, UMWA, Peabody and Patriot reached a partial settlement which will pay $310 million into the pension funds over four years, but the legislation before Congress would further support those retirement benefits.
“The legislation is right on point,” said Steve Earle of Greenville, a UMWA vice president. “We would certainly like Sen. McConnell to support it in the Senate.”
Carl Shoupe of Lynch is a retired UMWA organizer and father of an underground miner who said he’s fortunate that his retirement benefits are provided directly by UMWA and are secure. But some of his neighbors face the loss of benefits they thought had been guaranteed by Peabody.
“I support it whole heartedly,” Shoupe said of the bill before Congress. He said some members of his church face medical expenses and currently have lost their health insurance because of the bankruptcy case.
“Lord yeah, I support the bill,” said Shoupe. “Anything that gives some way to help these old coal miners out – that’s what it’s all about.”
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.