Budget Proposal Throws Coal Communities under the Bus

March 16, 2017 | 4:00 pm
Photo: Tammy Anthony Baker/Wikimedia Commons
Jeremy Richardson
Former Contributor

This morning the president released his “skinny” budget, an initial cut at the new administration’s priorities for government spending. This proposal will be nearly impossible to pass through Congress, but there are still many reasons to be alarmed about the proposed funding cuts (especially at NOAA, FEMA, and EPA).

One thing is absolutely clear from the proposals outlined in the skinny budget: despite many campaign promises to bring back coal jobs and support coal miners, the president doesn’t actually care about Coal Country.

What gives?

On the campaign trail, the president wooed coal miners, promising to get them back to work, and he remains wildly popular in Coal Country.

But here’s the thing about his new budget: throwing away decades of environmental safeguards isn’t going to bring back coal jobs. Instead of empty promises, the president should instead focus on increasing investments in programs that really benefit people and coal communities in the region. This budget proposal does exactly the opposite by eliminating critical funding, and taking those programs away will do real damage in coal communities.

The skinny on the skinny

How exactly would the proposal hurt coal communities? Just to name a few:

  • Appalachian Regional Commission: The budget proposal would eliminate entirely the Appalachian Regional Commission, an independent agency created decades ago “to address the persistent poverty and growing economic despair” in the Appalachian region. In just the last year and a half, from October 2015 through January 2017, ARC supported 662 projects with $175.5 million invested in Appalachian communities—matched by $257.4 million and attracting an additional $443.3 million in leveraged private investments. And the agency is meeting and exceeding its performance goals. For FY 15, ARC created or retained 23,032 jobs—surpassing its goal of 20,000 (see p.53 in this report).
  • Economic Development Administration: The Economic Development Administration within the Department of Commerce is also slated to be eliminated entirely. EDA is the only federal agency focused exclusively on economic development, and is designed to build sustainable job growth and robust and competitive regional economies. EDA’s budget has hovered near $250 million per year over the last few years and has funded projects in every state, offering grants, technical assistance, trade adjustment support, and even support for research on strategic planning for cash-strapped communities lacking the capacity for economic planning. EDA was also the lead agency in the Obama administration’s POWER Initiative, which specifically sought to drive investments in communities hurt by changes in the coal economy.
  • Department of Agriculture: The budget also proposes a $95 million cut to the Rural Business and Cooperative Service at USDA.
  • Department of the Treasury: The administration proposes the elimination the Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) Fund, claiming it “was created more than 20 years ago to jump-start a now mature industry where private institutions have ready access to the capital needed to extend credit and provide financial services to underserved communities.” Some of those “underserved communities” are located in Coal Country, and many remain in dire need of support and investment.

Hal Rogers, the Republican Congressman who has represented the coalfields of eastern Kentucky since 1981, released the following statement:

“While we have a responsibility to reduce our federal deficit, I am disappointed that many of the reductions and eliminations proposed in the President’s skinny budget are draconian, careless and counterproductive. In particular, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) has a long-standing history of bipartisan support in Congress because of its proven ability to help reduce poverty rates and extend basic necessities to communities across the Appalachian region. Today, nearly everyone in the region has access to clean water and sewer, the workforce is diversifying, educational opportunities are improving and rural technology is finally advancing to 21st Century standards. But there is more work to be done in these communities, and I will continue to advocate for sufficient funding for ARC and similar programs, like the Economic Development Administration.

And there’s more…

I’ve only scratched the surface. This proposal is only the opening gambit in what promises to be an interesting budget cycle, to say the least. In my mind, the question is: who will speak up to ensure that those workers—who helped keep the lights on for generations—and their communities get the support they need?

Meanwhile, on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Congress can’t seem to agree on addressing the imminent crisis of the miners’ health insurance and pension funds, and for some mystifying reason, no Republican Senator has stepped forward to cosponsor the RECLAIM Act—a commonsense solution using existing funds to clean up abandoned mine lands and create opportunities for long-term economic development.

And then there’s this little gem—the West Virginia Senate is considering eliminating mine safety enforcement altogether.

Given the rhetoric around all these issues, and the fact that the administration’s budget process is being driven by folks from the anti-government Heritage Foundation, these proposed cuts are not surprising. But they would be devastating to working families in Coal Country—and they must be stopped.