FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — President Barack Obama's new budget proposal includes more than $3 billion worth of tax credits and other spending to help the Appalachian region recover from the job losses and economic impact of the declining coal industry.
But the new Republican-controlled Congress appeared skeptical of the president's outreach to the heart of the nation's coal country, with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announcing Monday that he would personally oversee the budget of Obama's Environmental Protection Agency.
McConnell won re-election to a sixth-term last year largely because he campaigned against Obama, who is deeply unpopular in Kentucky. The main way McConnell did that was by criticizing the president's energy proposals that would restrict carbon emissions of new and existing coal-fired powered plants. Kentucky gets about 90 percent of its electricity from coal-fired power plants. But that could soon change because state officials have said Obama's policies would make it nearly impossible to replace the state's aging fleet of coal-fired power plants.
Eastern Kentucky has lost about 7,000 coal mining jobs, and many more jobs associated with the coal industry, since Jan. 1, 2012.
Obama's budget proposal released Monday would make up to $2 billion available in tax credits for technology that would reduce the carbon emissions of coal-fired power plants. Most of those credits, 70 percent, would be reserved for plants that produce at least 75 percent of their energy from burning coal.
The largest chunk of new spending in Obama's budget proposal would be more than $1 billion to redevelop abandoned coal mines scattered throughout the hills of eastern Kentucky and other coal-producing regions. The money would go to states and tribes in $200 million increments over five years, based on factors like the unemployment rate and how many abandoned mines are available.
Other proposals include $20 million from the Department of Labor for states to help out-of-work coal miners by training them to learn other professions and $25 million for the Appalachian Regional Commission to help communities plan for a future without coal.
Carl Shoupe, a retired coal miner who lives at the base of Black Mountain in eastern Kentucky, said he was "tremendously excited" about the budget proposals.
"We have just gotten used to this area where a lot of our families have been here for hundreds of years," said Shoupe, a board member for the advocacy group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. "We just love this area and this type of employment and this type of living and culture, and we're just excited that maybe we can keep it."
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear praised Obama's proposal and said it is similar to a state effort he is leading along with Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers. He urged Congress to consider the proposal "without making it this week's target practice for partisan bickering and gridlock."
But McConnell said it was "cold comfort" for Obama to "suddenly propose easing the pain they've helped inflict on so many Kentucky coal families."
"But anything aimed at aiding these communities should be seriously considered," McConnell added.
McConnell announced Monday he would join the Senate budget subcommittee that oversees the EPA's budget. During his re-election campaign, McConnell repeatedly promised to gut the EPA's budget in an attempt to stop it from imposing its emission restrictions on coal-fired power plants.
"You can guarantee that I will continue to fight back against this Administration's anti-coal jobs regulations on behalf of the Kentuckians I represent in the U.S. Senate," McConnell said in a news release.