Congress and the president have approved a law to renew the coal excise tax that pays for miners’ federal black lung benefits, but there’s a catch — the fix is temporary.
The excise tax was automatically cut in half at the beginning of 2019 after Congress repeatedly failed to renew it. Coal companies had been paying $1.10 per ton of underground coal mined and $0.55 per ton of surface mined coal. When Congress failed to extend the act in 2018, those rates dropped to $0.50 and $0.25 respectively, rates that were originally put into effect in 1977.
While the National Coal Association pushed for the cuts, saying the rate of black lung disease was down, healthcare advocates said there are more new claims, and those filing claims are younger miners. Coal mines are only required to monitor for dust for eight hours a day, and most miners work at least 10 hours a day.
Patty Amburgey of Letcher, whose husband died of black lung, said she will not be satisfied until the excise tax is approved for 10 years, and set to review for another 10 years after that. Amburgey is secretary of the Black Lung Association of Southeast Kentucky.
“We have a voice, and we will not back down,” Amburgey said.
Critics said the loss of money would slowly starve the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund until the money ran out, and would cost taxpayers billions of dollars that should have been paid by the coal companies.
Final approval of a bill temporarily increasing the excise tax to the 2019 levels came last week after President Donald Trump signed the Further Continued Appropriations Bill introduced in the House of Representatives in March and sent to the Senate on October 29.
January 2019 was the first time in nearly 40 years that Congress failed to either extend the excise tax or increase it, since Congress approved the Black Lung Benefits Revenue Act of 1981, according to a report from Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group.
“By failing to extend the excise tax, Congress is shifting billions of dollars in liabilities from coal companies to taxpayers. This is effectively another taxpayer subsidy for one of the most subsidized industries in history,” said Autumn Hanna, vice president of the group.
The report cites projections from the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), that estimate the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund will owe taxpayers in excess of $15 billion by 2050, and as much as $26 billion.
On January 1, the excise tax reverted to its 1977 rate of $0.50 per ton for underground coal sold and $0.25 for surface coal. This is less than half of the rates set in 1986. If adjusted for inflation, these rates would have the equivalent purchasing power of $0.12 and $0.06, respectively, in 2019.
“Congress created the Trust Fund so that coal companies, not taxpayers, bear the costs of black lung disease,” said Hanna. “Taxpayers are already subsidizing coal production through special tax breaks and sweetheart deals, and now are being stuck with the tab for this too. That’s ridiculous.”