June 29, 2012
Wyoming's senators say no to voiding contract with state and taking Abandoned Mine Land money
In order to cover all the new spending in a bill that provides flood insurance, discounts student loan interest rates and authorizes transportation programs, the House and Senate raided trust funds meant to pay for pensions and abandoned mine lands, according to U.S. Senators Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, both R-Wyo. The Senate and House passed the bill Friday by large margins. Enzi and Barrasso opposed the legislation.
The final bill would take a little over $700 million from the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) trust fund over the next 10 years. Most AML funds come from taxes paid on coal mined in Wyoming and Wyoming is likely the only state that would lose significant funding from this proposal.
“This is about more than defaulting on an obligation to Wyoming for a second time. It’s about gross financial mismanagement. This upsets me as an accountant and it should upset Americans who care about their country’s finances. Your favorite trust fund may be next. More importantly, we don’t have enough trust funds with money in them to satisfy the demands put on our government. It’s time for us to begin making the right choices. This bill is another in a long line of poor choices which created our financial mess in the first place,” Enzi said.
“The manner in which the AML program was amended is outrageous. This provision was written behind closed doors, without a hearing, debate, or any input from the public, the State of Wyoming, or its elected representatives. This process flies in the face of every notion of transparency, and open and accountable government,” Barrasso said.
Wyoming receives money from the AML fund because most of the coal in the U.S. is mined in Wyoming, but Enzi and Barrasso warned that a raid on a fund held in trust for Wyoming, could put other states in a similar position. Montana, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and others who receive AML money may not be so lucky next time.
This bill would cap (AML) payments to certified states at $15 million annually. Wyoming received $150 million this year and is set to receive a similar amount next year. No other certified state receives more than $15 million annually.
It’s not over
Working on both sides of the capitol with leadership from both parties, committee chairmen and ranking members, the Wyoming senators secured commitments to “address this issue.”
Enzi and Barrasso said the flood insurance, student loan and transportation bill undoes a carefully construed compromise that occurred in 2006 between a coalition of Eastern and Western states, mine workers, and coal companies and they are committed to getting back what should never have been taken.
In 1977, when the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was passed, a tax was levied against every ton of coal produced to help clean up coal mines that were abandoned before reclamation laws existed. Half of that tax was promised to states, and the other half went to the federal government to run the AML program and direct more money to the states with the largest reclamation needs (primarily eastern states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia).
Unfortunately, money that was promised to Wyoming and other states was not sent to them. Instead, the money was kept in Washington, D.C., spent on unrelated federal programs or used to make budget numbers look better, Enzi and Barrasso said.
In 2006, Wyoming’s Senators Enzi, Craig Thomas and Rep. Barbara Cubin and a bi-partisan group of coal state legislators worked to reauthorize the AML program so that states would receive their promised share of federal dollars. The agreement also accelerated payments to states that have environmental problems and made sure coal miners whose companies no longer exist are still covered for health care.