A new report from the nonpartisan budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense says that an expired coal tax is effectively a taxpayer subsidy for the coal industry. The analysis reflects a growing concern about the fiscal health of a federal fund that supports tens of thousands of disabled coal miners.
The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund was established in 1969 to pay health care expenses for certain disabled coal miners and their dependents. It is supported by coal companies, which pay a limited tax on each ton of coal they remove from the ground. Early this year, Congress allowed the tax to decrease by more than 50 percent. The Government Accountability Office found the move would leave the fund $15 billion in debt by 2050, and would likely require a bailout by taxpayers.
In the report, Taxpayers for Common Sense says the move is an effective subsidy of the coal industry, which already receives significant formal subsidization at the state and federal levels.
“Because congress has failed to take action to keep rates current with what the fund needs to be solvent, taxpayers are now shouldering the burden of the cost of this fund, instead of the coal industry,” said Autumn Hanna, vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Hanna said that the coal industry should include health care expenses for miners with black lung disease a non-negotiable part of their business plan, and that the 2018 tax cut was a “blatant subsidy” for an industry already receiving significant subsidies from the government.
The report found that accounting for inflation, reducing the per-ton tax on coal means the tax holds about a quarter of the value it held in 1977, before the rate was raised to its 2018 level.
The trust fund is under pressure not only from the cut in funding but also from increased demand as rates of black lung disease skyrocket, particularly in central Appalachia.
Coal industry representatives have argued that the per-ton tax on coal that funded the trust fund was an undue burden in a time of financial stress for the industry. The industry has struggled in recent decades as utility companies switch to cheaper natural gas and renewable energy.