Coal miners appeal to McConnell to back a rescue of their pensions

He didn’t say no.

A contingent of retired coal miners that has long been pressing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to back a fix for their soon-to-be insolvent pension fund, said Wednesday it had a positive meeting with the Kentucky Republican.

“He didn’t make any promises,” said Phil Smith, director of government affairs for the United Mine Workers of America. “But I think he’s opening to doing something to solve these guys’ pensions.”

McConnell has sought a broader fix to ensure the health of the federally chartered Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which insures millions of Americans in defined benefits pension plans but is facing its own fiscal challenges. But Smith said the miners told him that a more sweeping fix “is going to take longer than we have.” Actuaries expect the miners’ fund — which was hammered by the economic downturn — to become insolvent by 2022.

“We gave him that message and we’ll see where we go,” Smith said, adding, “I think we’re going to get there.”

There is support among Republicans and Democrats in both chambers for legislation that would address the coal miners’ pensions and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, made it clear that McConnell is a chief obstacle.

“We need your help, we need everyone to talk to Mitch McConnell,” Manchin said at a press conference outside the Capitol, surrounded by miners and their families. “Put it on the table, Mitch, let us vote. This (bill) is ready to go, it’s been ready for a long time.”

Manchin’s said the solution is already paid for: his legislation would transfer excess funds from a federal program to reclaim and restore abandoned mine sites to keep the pension plan solvent.

Manchin’s Republican West Virginia colleague Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said she recently spoke with a woman whose husband worked in a coal mine for 35 years and that she worries “every day” that her husband’s pension plan will run out of money.

“Just the angst in her voice is enough to have me here to redouble our efforts,” Capito said. “We’re working together, we’re working bipartisan. We’re working Mitch McConnell and others.”

Manchin said he, like McConnell, wants a bigger fix, but argued that if the miners’ fund dries up, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. would be affected “and everything else tumbles behind and we don’t want that to happen.”

He noted that a House and Senate task force that was convened last year to look at shoring up the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. missed its year-end deadline to come up with a more comprehensive solution.

“It’s a big lift but it has to be done, sooner or later,” Manchin said. “My concern and the urgency for the coal miners, is that we, by all accounts, will become financially insolvent by 2022.”

Robert Steurer, a McConnell spokesman, said the Kentucky Republican is concerned about the challenges facing what are known as multi-employer pension plans, such as the UMWA’s fund, which are sponsored by more than one employer and maintained under collective bargaining agreements.

“He believes it is best addressed through a broader bipartisan and bicameral pension reform effort,” Steurer said.

The congressional committee that looked at maintaining the solvency of multi-employer pension plans,did not complete its work last year, but Ohio senators Rob Portman, a Republican, and Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, who were members of that group, said they are continuing to work to find a solution.

“This is just a matter of fairness,” Portman said at the press conference. He noted the average monthly miner pension payment — about $600 — is among the more modest pensions covered by multi-employer plans. “We can get it done, it’s not asking for a lot.”

The United Mine Workers of America’s pension plan is underfunded because the number of retirees now far exceeds the number of active workers as union mining jobs have declined along with a general downturn in the coal industry. Company bankruptcies have hurt the pension fund, which now has just one major company, Murray Energy, contributing to the fund.

Due to economic challenges, the pension guaranty corporation has estimated that almost 75 percent of multi-employer plan participants are in plans that are less than 50 percent funded. It estimates its multi-employer fund will run out of money by the end of 2025.