As Appalachian coal miners suffer from a historic surge in black lung disease, a federal trust fund that supports some of those miners has been scheduled to lose a significant portion of its funding.
A new tax bill in Congress includes a provision to extend the coal excise tax that supports the trust fund.
With just weeks to spare, House Republicans unveiled a broad tax bill this week that includes one more year of revenue from the tax supporting the black lung disability fund.
The trust fund provides benefits to more than 25,000 coal miners and their dependents, and as more miners are diagnosed with the disease, the strain on the trust fund is likely to grow. An excise tax on coal is set to be reduced by about 50 percent at the end of the year.
The Government Accountability Office has said that if that coal tax isn't extended, the trust fund could be $15 billion dollars in debt by 2050. That would effectively shifting the responsibility for supporting disabled coal miners from coal companies to taxpayers.
Jason MacDonald is a political scientist at West Virginia University. He says it’s a lot easier for politicians to let a provision quietly expire than to actively vote against it.
“A lot of senators might not care about this issue. A lot of members of the house might not care that much about this issue. They might be perfectly fine with coal companies having the general public pay for this cost. But if they were forced to vote on it, if they were forced to be accountable, they might take the general public’s side,” he said.
The bill’s outlook remains uncertain in the short lame-duck session.
Senate Majority Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told the Ohio Valley ReSource in October that the excise tax would not be allowed to enter an “expiration situation”.
A spokesperson for the senator later added that regardless of whether the coal tax is extended, no miners would lose their benefits. Coal community activists are lobbying in Washington urging their representatives to extend the excise tax.