CHEYENNE — Gov. Matt Mead and other Wyoming officials are upset with last week’s vote in Congress cutting federal Abandoned Mine Land payments to the state. Wyoming has attracted criticism, however, for not using all program money for mining cleanup purposes.
Both houses of Congress voted last week to limit all states to $15 million a year of AML funding. While no other state receives more than $15 million, the move represents a major hit to Wyoming, the nation’s largest coal-producing state, which is receiving roughly $150 million under the program this year.
Congress approved the AML cut in order to help pay for transportation work and lower student loan rates. Members of Wyoming’s congressional delegation say they’re committed to try to restore the funding.
“I feel like we’ve had the rug pulled out from under us,” Mead said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press.
Mead said Wyoming coal producers have paid roughly $2.9 billion into the federal fund over the years with the understanding that the state would receive about $1.9 billion back.
Renny MacKay, spokesman for Mead, said Tuesday the congressional action represents a $720-million hit to Wyoming over the next 10 years.
The federal government agreed in 2006 to pay Wyoming money tax revenues from coal production that hadn’t been turned over in earlier years. MacKay said the congressional action would cost the state the last two annual payments of $82.7 million it was set to receive in 2013 and 2014. In addition, MacKay said Wyoming would lose $65 million a year for the next 10 years in current coal-production taxes.
Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977, funding the AML program by imposing a 35-cent tax on each ton of coal produced. MacKay said Wyoming has spent 82 percent of all money the state has received through the program on mine land reclamation.
However, Wyoming drew criticism from other mining states this year when the state Legislature approved $10 million of AML funds to renovate the University of Wyoming basketball arena. Mead later substituted $10 million in state funds for the UW project and used the federal dollars on highway construction. Wyoming has also used AML dollars over the years for other highway projects and to support the School of Energy Resources at UW.
President Barack Obama has pushed for years to cut AML payments to states like Wyoming that receive more from the program than they need for the ongoing costs of cleaning up abandoned coal mines. The deficit reduction committee co-chaired by former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming also identified such payments as a good place to cut federal spending.
However, Mead emphasized that Wyoming has used AML funding to pay for mine reclamation work and air quality monitoring.
“At the same time, there’s so much pressure on the coal industry because of concerns on the environment, they’ve pulled back on this program which we were using for a number of things: reclamation efforts, our air quality monitoring efforts,” Mead said. “And so it’s a terrible message.”
Mead said it also sends a bad message for the federal government to renege on its agreement with Wyoming. He noted that the federal government is asking states to engage in programs such as the Affordable Care Act.
“When you have a course change like this, it certainly causes a lot of trepidation about what future things could happen if we sign off on big programs,” Mead said.
Mead also said he’s concerned that his office and the state’s congressional delegation apparently received little notice that Congress was going to consider the proposal in advance.
Laura M. Mengelkamp, press secretary to Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said Tuesday that the senator was outraged last week that the provision to strip Wyoming of its AML money was written behind closed doors and approved without debate.
“The provision denies a single state, the largest coal producing state in the country, the money that it is owed,” Mengelkamp said. “Senator Barrasso will continue to work with congressional leaders to fix this backdoor provision that robbed Wyoming of the millions that belong to them.”
Sen. Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, serves as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee in the Wyoming Legislature. He said Tuesday that the loss of funds promises to have a huge effect on the state.
“We have built into our budget over the years uses for the one-time or annual receipt of the AML funding that really address impacts that we have to educate, to provide for transportation, and a whole variety of needs that are directly related to coal mining and its impacts,” Nicholas said.
Nicholas said he wishes that members of Congress who voted to cut the funds for Wyoming would recognize that their own constituents benefit from low-cost energy that’s exported from Wyoming.
“We’re happy to assume the impacts that are resulting from that, but I think it’s reasonable for us to expect that they will understand that that there’s a burden that we suffer and we should be compensated for that,” Nicholas said.