The Kentucky House budget bill that was passed this month, quietly cut nearly $2.3 million a year from Gov. Steve Beshear’s proposal for mine safety, the Courier-Journal reported.
In his budget, Beshear proposed using $7.6 million of coal severance tax revenues in each of the next two years for the state program that inspects and licenses coal mines. But the budget bill passed by the House reduces that to $5.3 million per year. According to the Courier-Journal the move was made without explanation and little discussion.
Overall, when including other state funding for the Office of Mine Safety and Licensing, the House cut represents a 15 percent reduction, compared to Beshear’s proposal — from $14.7 million to $12.4 million in 2014-15 and from $14.9 million to $12.6 million in 2015-16.
And Beshear’s proposal already included a 5 percent cut to the 145-employee agency that inspects and licenses coal mines, trains and certifies all coal miners, performs mine rescue operations and investigates mining accidents.
The House cut was not mentioned during the budget committee meeting or floor session when the budget bill was passed. But it was noticed by Beshear’s budget office.
“We’re very concerned about the lack of sufficient funds to ensure safety for our miners, and we will work with the House and the Senate to make certain the budget will include enough money to cover the critical needs in this agency,” Beshear said in a statement responding to a question about the cut.
Rep. Rick Rand, a Bedford Democrat who chairs the House budget committee, said with employment down and coal severance revenues down overall, his committee decided that mine safety funds could be safely reduced. “There’s not nearly so much mining going on now as there has been,” Rand said. “So the need for those programs is probably not as great as it was — not that mine safety is not important. It’s very important. But as the number of mines decrease, the number of jobs decrease, the need for those inspections probably decreases as well.”
Rep. John Will Stacy, D-West Liberty, who chairs a budget subcommittee, said, “There’s no doubt that mine safety needs” the money that was cut. “But there’s all kinds of needs for it. But the truth of the matter is that receipts are down ... so we’re forced to tighten our belt.”
Some mine safety advocates say the House cut is cause for concern.
In each of the last two years there were two fatalities at Kentucky mines, according to the cabinet’s website. But mine safety emerged as a priority for the General Assembly in 2006 when 15 Kentucky miners died in coal mines including five at a methane explosion at the Kentucky Darby mine in Harlan County.
Those 2006 deaths prompted the General Assembly to strengthen safety laws, including increasing the number of required state inspections per year at mines from two to six.
Mine safety is the largest of seven budget items that in recent years have been partly funded with coal severance tax receipts that were cut by the House. Others cut are programs that serve coal counties, including education and anti-drug programs.
Combined, the House cut $5.4 million per year from these programs and moved that money to a program that distributes part of coal severance tax revenues back to coal producing counties in the form of projects and grants decided by legislators from those counties.