Economists Grapple With Pandemic’s Effects As Ohio Valley Officials Brace For A Fiscal Blow Tuesday, May 26 2020 

Kentucky’s state budget officials told lawmakers Friday that general fund receipts may decline by 495 million dollars next fiscal year. It’s just the latest example of the unprecedented financial hardships ahead for the Ohio Valley’s state and local governments due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

More than 38 million Americans have applied for unemployment insurance in the past nine weeks, about 2.5 million of them in the Ohio Valley states of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. 

Even economists find figures like that hard to reckon with. John Deskins directs the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University. He says the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic challenges standard approaches to economic modelling and forecasting, which rely on recent patterns in data. But data since mid-March are completely unprecedented.

“The notion that the national economy would go from 3-point-something percent unemployment to 20-something over the course of 6 weeks? We’ve never heard of that before!” he said. 

Then there are the unknowns regarding what happens with the virus itself: Will there be a large second wave of infections? When will a vaccine arrive? But even with those uncertainties, economists like Jason Bailey say the outlook is grim. Bailey is the executive director of the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy and says even the rosier scenarios in his control forecast show economic conditions will likely be worse than those during the 2008 financial crisis. 

“The control forecast is still a terrible forecast when it comes to the economy, when it comes to the unemployment, when it comes to revenue for government,” he said. “It’s still worse, by far, than anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes.” 

So while details of the economic forecast for Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia remain murky, the existing data reveal the outlines of mammoth losses that economists and local leaders expect the coronavirus to have on state and municipal budgets. Experts say the unprecedented budget shortfalls could lead to layoffs for public-sector workers like school guidance counselors and city maintenance workers; cuts to funding for local festivals; and the shelving of arts and cultural programming.

Just how big those cuts will be may largely depend on the outcome of the current Congressional debate about further federal aid.

Cities and Towns

Without further stimulus from the federal government, Kentucky cities expect to lose about $85 million between them by the end of the next fiscal year, and as much as $180 million the following fiscal year, according to a survey of mayors conducted by advocacy group the Kentucky League of Cities. 

Mayors reported the shortfalls could result in cuts to parks budgets (85 percent of respondents), public works (80 percent) and police services (54 percent). Of Kentucky’s 416 mayors, 102 responded to the KLC’s survey. 

In recessions, the experts say, education, social services and the arts are the first budget items to go. 

“Some people disagree about whether cities should be in the business of parks and recreation,” said KLC executive director J.D. Chaney. “But if this crisis has shown us anything, it’s that people can work from anywhere. So if you want people to live in your town, you have to make it a nice place to live.” 

A March bill from the federal government, the CARES Act, included $150 billion to reimburse cities for expenses related to the coronavirus. But that funding is limited to cities with more than 500,000 people, leaving small and mid-sized cities worried. Besides, Chaney said, he started hearing from mayors across Kentucky that the issue wasn’t an expenditure problem: It was a revenue problem. Residents weren’t paying their utility bills; property, retail and income taxes were expected to plummet. 

“Before this all came about, we were sort of doing a balancing act to provide services with the limited budget we already had,” said Todd DePriest, mayor of the eastern Kentucky city of Jenkins, population less than 2,000. “Just looking at utilities, we’re somewhere between 10 and 20 percent in terms of collections compared to where we were before. That don’t sound like a lot, but when you’re already borderline operating anyway, it really cuts into what you can do.” 

DePriest has already started making changes: Police cars will receive maintenance less frequently, and purchases like new tires for utility vehicles will be put off for as long as possible. 

Seeking Federal Aid

The state of Kentucky also expects significant revenue loss related to the pandemic. In a recent report, the Governor’s Office for Economic Analysis projected a revenue shortfall ranging from $318.7 to $495.7 million, and fourth quarter totals may be as much as 23.7 percent lower than in the same quarter the previous year.

The shortfall is largely a consequence of skyrocketing unemployment in Kentucky and around the country, with roughly 2.5 million people in the Ohio Valley filing for benefits since mid-March. 

The unemployed, explained Jason Bailey, “Are not buying, so they’re not paying sales taxes, and they’re not employed, so they’re not having income taxes withheld.”

Corporate taxes are also expected to fall short of original estimates, as commercial and industrial activity will likely remain low in the coming months. “If movie theaters start going bankrupt, all of a sudden you’re going to see a lot of urban real estate that’s not paying taxes,” said Rea Hederman of Ohio’s right-leaning Buckeye Institute. 

“As these budget cuts start to come down,” said Policy Matters Ohio executive director Hannah Halbert. “Looking at those cuts through an equity lens, and even just a health-disparities lens, that will tell its own story: What gets cut first, which districts are harmed, and how that deepens or lessens people’s shots at a fair future.” 

Since states and localities have to balance their budgets, the depth of those cuts will largely depend on how much stimulus comes from the federal government. Organizations including the National Governors Association, the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties have called on Congress to provide additional aid. 

“Many state and local governments are facing a June 30 deadline to adopt budgets,” the groups wrote in their appeal to Congress. “Without federal assistance, states, territories and local governments will be forced to make drastic cuts to the programs Americans depend on to provide economic security, educational opportunities and public safety.”

A $3 trillion bill dubbed the HEROES Act passed the Democratic-led House, but faces opposition in the Republican-led Senate. The 1,800-page bill includes items from the Democratic wish list that will surely face scrutiny, like student loan forgiveness and payments of up to $6,000 per family. Kentucky Republican and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has expressed skepticism about further spending until there’s more data on the effects of previous bills. 

Ky. Rep. Charles Booker Announces Potential U.S. Senate Bid To Challenge McConnell Monday, Nov 11 2019 

Kentucky state representative Charles Booker says he is exploring a run for U.S. Senate in 2020, potentially challenging Democrats Amy McGrath and Mike Broihier in the primary in hopes of taking on incumbent Republican Mitch McConnell next November. Booker announced the formation of his exploratory committee by video on Monday.

Booker, 35, is a liberal legislator and lawyer from Louisville who was elected to his first term last year. He serves on the Natural Resources and Energy, Judiciary, and Economic Development and Workforce Investment committees. Booker is a member of the Louisville Metropolitan and Kentucky Black Legislative caucuses.

McConnell, the longtime senator and now Senate majority leader, has never lost a Senate race. First elected in 1984, he has over time consolidated his power, a fact conservative supporters love and opponents lament.

He is also the subject of Booker’s campaign announcement video.

“He doesn’t need hope or faith. He’s got money and power,” Booker says, of McConnell. “And the more power he’s winning Washington, the more we lose in Kentucky.”

Forming an exploratory committee allows candidates to raise money to pay for polling and other campaign expenses while deciding whether to officially run.

In the video, Booker criticizes McConnell’s polices, through explicit references and allusions to climate change, gun violence and health care. He calls for a Green New Deal and for Medicare for All.

His support for those policies puts him to the left of McGrath, a retired Marine fighter pilot who narrowly lost a challenge to incumbent U.S. Rep. Andy Barr.

The other Democrat who has filed to run in next year’s primary election is Mike Broihier, a retired Marine, news editor and farmer.

Radio host Matt Jones has also formed an exploratory committee, but has not decided whether to officially run.

Former Republican state Rep. Wesley Morgan is the lone Republican who has filed to challenge McConnell in next year’s primary election.

The primary election is May 19, 2020.

Booker did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Murray Energy’s Bankruptcy Could Bring Collapse Of Coal Miners’ Pensions Monday, Nov 4 2019 

The recent bankruptcy of Ohio Valley coal giant Murray Energy has renewed fears about the already shaky financial foundations of the pension plan that tens of thousands of miners and their families depend upon.

The seismic collapse of yet another coal employer has lawmakers from the region renewing their push to fix the United Mine Workers pension fund, and has even raised broader concerns about pensions for a range of other trades.

Murray Energy has a substantial footprint across the region. It is also the last major employer contributing to the UMWA pension plan. In its bankruptcy filing, the company reports $2.7 billion in debt and more than $8 billion in obligations under various pension and benefit plans. More information will likely come out as the bankruptcy court takes up the matter.

IMG_0129 2Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Bob Murray speaking at an event in October, 2019.

Bankruptcy proceedings often take months, and it’s not yet clear if the company will be relieved of its pension obligations. UMWA spokesperson Phil Smith said if recent history is any guide, that is a likely outcome.

“We don’t think any company should be able to be relieved of its responsibility to any retirees, whether they’re in the coal industry or not,” Smith said. “But it has happened in the coal industry time after time after time.”

Smith said if the bankruptcy court relieves Murray’s pension obligations, that could be another $6 billion loss for the UMWA retirement fund.

The UMWA health and retirement fund covers the benefits of retirees whose employers went out of business before 2007. The plan was already facing insolvency by 2022, largely due to the industry’s decline in production and a wave of bankruptcies. Smith said now that Murray Energy has filed for Chapter 11 protection, the fund could become insolvent by next year.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts said much of the problem lies in how bankruptcy courts treat workers’ concerns.

“Why should workers stand in line last? Why should it be beneficial to a CEO or CFO to file bankruptcy?” he said. “They ran the company into the ground, they get rich, the workers lose their health care. Sometimes they lose their job. Sometimes they lose their pensions. That needs to be dealt with.”

Murray Energy is among nearly a dozen coal companies to go bankrupt during the Trump administration, despite the repeated claims of a “coal comeback.” Some lawmakers worry that the combined impact could cause a domino effect for other multi-employer pensions across the country.

Virgil2Becca Schimmel | Ohio Valley ReSource

Retired Kentucky miner Virgil Stanley at a UMWA rally for pension protections.

‘Economic contagion’

Insolvent plans fall to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, or PBGC, which is a federal backstop for pension plans. Lawmakers from around the Ohio Valley warn that the fund is also already at risk, and it would be in far more financial trouble if it became responsible for the UMWA plan.

Last year a bipartisan group of lawmakers served on the Joint Select Committee on Solvency of Multi-employer Pensions. The group was tasked with finding a solution to pension problems affecting a range of workers including teamsters, coal miners, iron workers, and bakers and confectioners.

Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican on the joint committee, warned at a field hearing last year that if even one of the larger plans becomes insolvent that could put the PBGC at risk as well.

“That wave of bankruptcy has the potential to create an economic contagion effect,” Portman said. “In other words, it would spread around our economy.”

IMG_1076Aaron Payne | Ohio Valley ReSource

A union miner at the rally for pension protection.

But despite the shared concern, the committee missed a self-imposed deadline to come up with a solution and disbanded at the end of the year.

The UMWA’s Smith said more than $1 billion goes into local economies every year from health care benefits and pensions that are paid directly to retirees. More than $130 million flows into Kentucky alone.

Simon Haeder is an assistant professor of public policy at Penn State University. He said shoring up the UMWA pension plan would have been a lot less expensive and more manageable if Congress had started to address the “inevitable” issue much earlier.

“Coal miners are one of those probably worst-case scenarios here,” he said, “because the balance between people paying into the system and people taking out of the system is so out of whack.”

Haeder said the miners’ pension problems also raise questions about whether people can rely on these pension systems in the future. He said the decline in union membership and the complex actions of bankruptcy courts have given employers an edge over the interests of workers when a business goes under.

“Bankruptcy law and bankruptcy court will certainly side with employers much more than they will side with employees,” he said.

A Legislative Fix?

Sen. Joe Manchin and other coal-area lawmakers introduced the American Miners Act to try to shore up the shaky UMWA pension. The West Virginia Democrat’s bill would transfer some money from interest accrued on the federal Abandoned Mine Land fund – which is used to clean up old mining sites – into the mine workers’ pension plan. It would not take money directly from the fund.

Manchin is attaching the American Miners Act to a spending bill that keeps the federal government running. He said most of the pension checks are for $600 a month or less and many of those are going to widows who depend on that money for basic living expenses.

“When coal companies go bankrupt coal miners benefits are at the bottom of the priority list,” Manchin said.

The bill would also restore a tax on coal used to fund the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which Congress had allowed to be reduced by half last year. Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey is a co-sponsor on the bill.

“I won’t stop fighting until we’ve secured the promised pensions and an extension of the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund for coal miners and their families,” Casey said. “I hope Congressional Republicans will join our mission.”

The Senate bill does not yet have a Republican co-sponsor but there is general bipartisan support for action on the miners’ pensions. In the House two pending bills propose a similar funding method to shore up the UMWA fund. Republican Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia is the lead sponsor on one of those.

Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia proposes a version that also addresses the health care benefits of retirees whose companies went bankrupt last year and have been or will be relieved of those obligations by a bankruptcy court. Both bills have passed out of committee.

But of course one Republican’s voice will matter most, and that is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

McConnell’s Call

McConnell had previously postponed action on miners’ pensions by splitting an earlier proposal to address both retirement funds and health benefits. McConnell introduced his own version in 2017, which provided for miners’ health benefits but avoided dealing with pensions.

In an emailed statement, McConnell said he’s concerned about the insolvency issues facing a number of multi-employer pension plans, and that he supports finding a bipartisan solution for pension reform.

It’s not clear when or if the majority leader will take up the issue of coal miners’ pensions or healthcare benefits.

manchin mcconnellU.S. Senate

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

The Miners Act and other similar bills have attracted criticism from fiscal conservatives such as the Heritage Foundation. Heritage calls the proposal a “bail out” that would do nothing to “fix the root of the problem” with the large pension plans.

Manchin said he will attach the American Miners Act to every vehicle possible in Congress in the hope that McConnell will agree to take action.

“And Senator McConnell I know he’s concerned about other pensions, we’re all concerned about other pensions, but this is on the front burner now,” Manchin said, adding that if the miners’ pension plan falls it will likely not fall alone. “When this happens, everything else will tumble and snowball with it.”

ReSource reporter Brittany Patterson contributed to this story.

U of L now owns the downtown Cardiovascular Innovation Institute Monday, Oct 21 2019 

By Jessica Kisling — 

The University of Louisville now owns the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute after the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence handed over their $16 million share as of Oct. 7.

U of L President Neeli Bendapudi took the opportunity to thank the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence for their continuous effort and promised that the hard work would continue.

The main goal of the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute is to improve the research done on cardiovascular diseases that affect people’s daily lives. Cardiovascular diseases are one of the leading causes of death across the United States, and is responsible for about 75 percent of deaths in Kentucky alone said Toni Ganzel, dean of the U of L School of Medicine.

This research has since been declared as the most important and vital medical research for the next decade.

According to the press release, since its original formation in 2006, the institute has developed technologies and devices that will allow for advancement in cardiovascular medicine in space as well as in war. They have also developed therapeutic approaches to the diseases and their diagnoses as well as a high resolution ultrasound that can measure the heart’s structure.

Funding for the institute originally came from different health organizations in the commonwealth. Among these contributors include St. Mary’s Healthcare, Kosair Charities and the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development and Department of Commercialization and Innovation. Senator Mitch McConnell also helped by aiding the institute in receiving federal appropriations.

Since then they have acquired almost $39 million in other grants and contracts. Most of this money has been designated for the development of the innovative cardiovascular technologies and medicine.

File Photo // The Louisville Cardinal

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ANALYSIS: Could Matt Jones Actually Beat Mitch McConnell?  Friday, Aug 30 2019 

Sports radio host Matt Jones would be a big underdog in a Senate race against Mitch McConnell. But he might have a better chance than Amy McGrath.

Jones announced on Thursday that he is forming an exploratory committee to consider a run against McConnell, but put off formally deciding if he will enter the race until after this November’s statewide elections in Kentucky. It’s likely that Jones will run if Kentucky Democrats strongly encourage his candidacy and therefore it seems he would defeat McGrath in next May’s Democratic primary. I expect he’ll back off if it’s clear McGrath is too strong of an opponent.

Jones’s potential candidacy raises three big questions:

  1. Would he actually win a primary against McGrath (and also longshot candidate Mike Broihier, who is, like McGrath, an ex-Marine?)
  2. Does Jones have a real shot of defeating McConnell in a general election?
  3. Even if Jones is a big underdog, would he be a stronger challenger to McConnell than McGrath?

These questions are very connected to one another, of course. Kentucky Democrats really hate McConnell, so they are likely to prioritize “electability” in a Senate Democratic primary, looking for the candidate who has the best chance to topple the incumbent. If Jones can present himself as the best candidate against McConnell, then I think he will be a strong contender in the primary.

So does Jones have a real shot of beating McConnell? Yes, but a fairly slim one. Jones’ biggest problem is the same as McGrath’s: he’s a Democrat.

In elections for state-based offices like governor or attorney general, Americans sometimes will vote for a candidate who isn’t from the party they generally align with (so Massachusetts has a Republican governor, Louisiana a Democratic one.) But an Andy Beshear victory in the governor’s race this November doesn’t necessarily portend Democrats beating McConnell in 2020. Why not? Because states increasingly back the same party for U.S. Senate and president. Kentucky leans conservative in federal elections (about 15 points to the right of the country) and President Donald Trump is popular here (61 percent approval, 35 percent disapproval, according to recent polling from the firm Civiqs).

Trump is likely to win by double digits in Kentucky in 2020, no matter who the Democrats nominate against him in the presidential election. McConnell is fairly unpopular (36 percent approve of him in Kentucky, 50 percent disapprove, per Morning Consult). But Trump has already endorsed the senator and I would expect the vast majority of the president’s backers to also vote for McConnell.

Duh, Kentucky is a red state you might say. But does Jones give Democrats a better chance than McGrath, even if that is a fairly small chance? I’m not sure, but I think so.

The results from McGrath’s 2018 House race are not promising for Democrats, in terms of projecting her statewide appeal. The former Marine fighter pilot won the two counties that include most of the cities of Frankfort and Lexington — and lost the 17 more rural ones in Kentucky’s Sixth District. Kentucky is one of the most rural states in the nation — a candidate who can only appeal to more urban voters will struggle to get elected statewide here. McGrath campaigned heavily in the rural areas in her district in 2018. But I suspect her biography (she is a pro-abortion rights Democrat who had bragged about how liberal she is and spent much of her adult life outside of Kentucky) limited her appeal to more conservative and rural voters, who may not have been as moved by McGrath’s military background as Democrats expected.

Jones is known to many Kentuckians because he talks about sports on TV and the radio — so his biography and identity probably seem less stereotypically liberal than many other Democrats. He has listeners in more rural areas of the state. He, at least at first glance, seems more likely than McGrath to not be dismissed by more conservative voters.

But I don’t want to overstate this case. McGrath ran a fairly strong campaign for the House. She has enough of a following in Kentucky and nationally to have raised $2.5 million in her first day as a candidate. Jones has never run for any elective office before. He could be a bad candidate, unable to speak about policy issues fluently. And once he is campaigning for the Senate, Jones will seem more like a traditional politician and lose some of his sports guy brand.

Jones has not detailed his positions yet. But if he enters the race, Democratic activists and the press are going to try to pin down Jones on a number of issues. Does Jones support the Green New Deal? How about Medicare-for-All? Would he embrace getting rid of the filibuster for legislation in the Senate? Does he consider Trump a racist or a white supremacist or neither? Does he think Trump should be impeached? What are his exact views on abortion? Answering all of those questions is likely to further box in Jones as politician — and some of his answers are likely to turn off the people who liked to hear him talk about sports.

I suspect that Jones will end up taking a bunch of left (but not very left) positions on the issues, while trying not to bash Trump too much (because he may need some Trump voters to win the general election.) In short, Jones could end up being another version of McGrath — a Lexington-area based Democrat who might have trouble appealing to the state’s more rural voters because he is both urban and fairly liberal, while also annoying the party’s liberal base by not taking on Trump aggressively enough.

My bottom line — the potential candidacy of Jones is a very interesting development. It seems like Jones, more so than any other Democrat in Kentucky, has the potential to get voters to think about voting for the person and not the party, because he would be such a non-traditional candidate. But I emphasize potential. Jones has to decide if he wants to join McGrath in what might be an ultimately futile enterprise — trying to win a Senate seat in Kentucky as a Democrat when Donald Trump is on the ballot.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a national political writer based in Louisville. You can reach him via Twitter or e-mail.

Broadcaster Matt Jones Takes Step Toward Senate Run Thursday, Aug 29 2019 

Prominent Kentucky broadcaster Matt Jones is planning to take a step toward running as a Democrat for the seat held by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by forming an exploratory committee.

Jones said Thursday he expects to make a final decision on whether to enter the campaign after this year’s November election.

Jones is expected to file paperwork in coming days to form the exploratory committee. Doing so will allow him to raise money that can be used for polling and other expenses while determining whether to become a candidate.

Other Democrats in the race include former Marine combat aviator Amy McGrath and political newcomer Mike Broihier. McGrath narrowly lost a race for the U.S. House last year.

McConnell is seeking a seventh term in 2020.

Coal Miners To Hit Capitol Hill For Black Lung Funding  Monday, Jul 22 2019 

Dozens of Appalachian coal miners plan to visit Capitol Hill Tuesday to ask lawmakers to bolster funding for the black lung disability trust fund, which miners depend upon when no responsible company can be identified to pay for needed health care. 

The fund is already billions of dollars in debt, and that will likely grow as more miners develop the disease and coal companies pay less into the fund. Coal companies pay a tax to support the trust fund, which pays monthly income and health benefits for miners who were disabled by the preventable and deadly occupational disease. 

The tax rate was increased in 1981 to pay down the fund’s debts and in 2008 that tax rate was extended for another 10 years. But Congress allowed the tax rate to expire last year and companies now pay about half as much per ton of coal. 

Now the trust fund’s debt is expected to rise from $4 billion to $15 billion by 2050. 

Over 25,000 miners and their dependents rely on the fund for monthly income and health benefits. Demand is expected to grow as diagnoses of severe forms of the disease skyrocket, particularly among Appalachian miners. 

Barry Johnson is planning to make the trip to Washington. A fourth-generation coal miner, he  takes great pride in his decades of hard work underground. Johnson has a serious form of black lung disease called progressive massive fibrosis.

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Disabled miner Barry Johnson wears an oxygen tube to assist breathing.

He carries a portable oxygen tank, though he tries to use it as little as possible so his lungs don’t get used to the help. “I have good days and bad days,” he said, gazing at the collection of hardhats on his mantelpiece. “Today is a bad day.” 

Johnson used to enjoy spending time in the woods hunting for ginseng. Now he struggles with daily tasks. “It doesn’t only take your health. It takes your identity.” 

Travelling isn’t easy for the disabled miner, but he says the long trip to Washington D.C. is worth it. Johnson worries that if Congress doesn’t act, the fund could no longer be able to make its payments, or would need to be bailed out by taxpayers. 

Industry Woes

Despite favorable policies from the Trump administration, the coal industry has continued to struggle amid high-profile bankruptcies and the closure of more coal-fired power plants. 

“This is an industry that is still working hard to stabilize after years of decline – now is clearly not the time to raise taxes on the coal industry,” said National Mining Association spokesperson Ashley Burke. “Doing so would further disadvantage coal against competing energy sources.”

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Black lung activists say Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky could have preserved the trust fund tax rate before it expired last year. Indeed, he suggested to the Ohio Valley ReSource in October that he would do so. 

McConnell’s staff members say the issue is a concern for him.

“Even though the temporary tax increase expired last year, current benefits for our impacted miners and their families have remained at prior levels,” said McConnell spokesperson Stephanie Penn. “Senator McConnell and his staff have been working closely with interested parties regarding future funding for the program, and will continue to ensure these important benefits are maintained.”

McConnell’s office says he’s agreed to speak with the visiting miners. Miner Barry Johnson knows exactly what he wants to say.

“You have a duty and an obligation,” he said. “Do what’s right.” 

Potential Action

Brandon Crum, a Kentucky-based radiologist who first sounded the alarm about the epidemic, said last month that the past six months have been the worst of his career, as cases of severe black lung disease pile up. 

brandon-mackie-2Howard Berkes, NPR

Mackie Branham views a lung X-ray with Dr. James Brandon Crum, who was among the first physicians to note an uptick in black lung diagnoses.

An NPR and PBS Frontline investigation found that the surge in disease, which is significantly focused on central Appalachia, is largely the result of a failure by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to regulate silica dust, which is prevalent in the rock surrounding Appalachian coal seams. 

Congress is paying attention. A House Education and Labor subcommittee in June considered whether MSHA had taken silica exposure risk seriously enough.

Living Wage: Ohio Valley Workers, Employers React As House Votes For $15 Minimum Wage  Saturday, Jul 20 2019 

The U.S. House of Representatives voted Thursday to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, more than double the current $7.25 rate, which has not changed in a decade. The bill is unlikely to clear the Republican-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said he will not take it up.

But the vote adds energy to election-season debate about a living wage, an issue that resonates with tens of thousands in the Ohio Valley, where low-wage jobs have been taking the place of higher-earning ones lost to declines in the mining and manufacturing sectors.

Courtesy House Education and Labor Committee

House Education and Labor Committee Chair Bobby Scott at the podium with Congressional Democrats and supporters of the wage increase.

In eastern Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District – among the poorest in the country – one analysis of the $15 an-hour wage shows that some 93,700 people, or 42 percent of the workers there, would see an increase in wages.

Eric McIntosh is one of them.

“I’m from eastern Kentucky, I am 24, and I work for a sandwich shop for minimum wage,” McIntosh said. He lives in Morehead, in an apartment above a consignment shop. McIntosh wants to see an increase in the minimum wage, so he can live a better life and pay to attend the trade school down the road. But for now, he worries about more day-to-day concerns.

“The anxiety of poverty, you’re nervous about every single check that you get, if that’s going to be enough, and that keeps you up at night and that just makes your work even worse,” he said.

At the current minimum wage, McIntosh could still wind up well below the federal poverty level for families, even working full time.

A recent report from the Congressional Budget Office shows increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour could lift about 1.3 million people out of poverty and boost the wages of 17 million workers. But the CBO also warns that such a wage hike could result in more than one million lost jobs nationwide and could diminish overall income for others.

Vicious Cycle

McIntosh described a cycle of low pay and job-related costs that keep him on a treadmill of earning just enough to keep his employment, but never enough to get ahead.

“Certain jobs require that you pay for your uniform,” he explained. But even maintaining the work uniform becomes another cost and another potential trap. “You can’t upkeep your uniform, you end up getting fired.”

He said many workers end up using high-interest, payday loan services to get by.

“But when all your money has to go to your bills, your back-pay because you had to take out a payday loan,” he said. “That’s going to all the credit at the payday loan.”

Becca Schimmel | Ohio Valley ReSource

Eric McIntosh works for minimum wage at a sandwich shop in Morehead, KY.

Even just getting to and from his job is hard. Transportation is a common problem for people working minimum wage in a rural area. A report from the American Public Transportation Association found that while rural population is declining, ridership in rural areas has been increasing.

McIntosh said he’s often had to rely on others for his transportation, and he has seen his co-workers lose jobs because they couldn’t afford a minor car repair.

“And if people have more spending money, we’re going to generate more jobs,” he said. “We’re going to buy more products. I guarantee you if I made $15 an hour, I would actually buy a car for once.”

He said he would also invest in his education and work skills.

“To get ahead in life, to be able to use these jobs as a kickoff point, you have to have some money left over to be able to reinvest in yourself,” he said.

Employer Concerns

Opponents of the minimum wage increase focus on the costs to employers and the potential for job cuts. The conservative Heritage Foundation argues that small businesses would not be able to increase revenue enough to cover the cost of higher wages, and employers would be forced to increase prices or cut costs by eliminating positions.

Fred Baumann is one of those small businessmen who would be affected. He’s the chairman of the board for Baumann Paper Co., a Lexington-based company now in its third generation of Baumann family management.

“My dad started the company in 1950,” he said. His daughter now runs the business, which distributes paper, plastic and other sanitary supplies. I met him at one of the many businesses his company supplies, a hotel and restaurant.

Baumann said the company already pays many employees in the $14 to $15 an hour range. But if the federal minimum wage increases they’ll feel the pressure to increase their workers’ pay.

“We’re paying what the market demands us to pay in order to get the competent workers and to retain them,” he said.

When we first spoke Baumann didn’t know what the federal minimum wage was. He said he was under the impression that it was around $10 an hour. It is $7.25 in Kentucky. (In West Virginia it is $8.75, and $8.55 in Ohio.) He worries that a much higher wage will make workers less motivated.

“People have to have a certain amount of initiative rather than stuff being handed to them,” he said. “My perspective is, if you automatically get 15 bucks an hour, then where’s the incentive?”

He said his company would have to look at whether they’d be better off investing in more automation.

 

The CBO report offered a range of possible outcomes regarding the potential for lost jobs, and noted that the predictions came with a high degree of uncertainty. The median forecast shows 1.3 million potential job losses. A worst-case scenario shows 3.7 million jobs could be lost.

The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, conducted a separate analysis that questioned those job loss figures.

EPI Economist Ben Zipperer said the challenges for businesses are not as large as the “scare stories” about raising the minimum wage might have some people think. He said some of the job loss from increasing the wage can be explained by lower turnover.

“So when you raise minimum wage you actually reduce worker turnover, and makes it easier for businesses to retain workers because they’re now paying higher wages,” he said.

The CBO report also showed that it’s possible there would be no change in unemployment due to a $15 an hour minimum wage, and Zipperer said that lines up with most of the research that’s been done on the minimum wage. He said if all businesses are forced to increase the pay for their workers, it might increase a company’s ability to compete.

“It’s a lot easier for a restaurant to raise its prices a little bit when all restaurants are having to do the same thing in order to accommodate a minimum wage increase,” he said.

The EPA analysis also shows that the Ohio Valley region would see some of the most pronounced wage increases in the country as a result of a $15 minimum wage by 2024.

For example, the EPI report predicts that in large portions of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, and southeast Ohio, roughly 40 percent of workers would see some increase in wages.

EPI says some workers employed year-round in Kentucky could see an increase in their average annual income of about $4,000. In West Virginia and Ohio, workers might see about $3,000 more in average annual income.

Zipperer said that could help offset the region’s high inequality.

“When you raise minimum wages, reduce poverty, raise family income at the bottom you’re actually reducing income inequality,” he said.

Click for an interactive map from Economic Policy Institute, which advocates for a higher minimum wage.

Rising Inequality

In late 2017, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights for the United Nations, Philip Alston, conducted a fact-finding tour of some places affected by extreme poverty. But those weren’t in some developing nation, they were in the United States, including a visit to communities in the Ohio Valley.

Alston’s report to the UN Human Rights Council found that of the 40 million poor Americans, more than five million live in “Third World conditions of absolute poverty.” It also showed that  Americans live shorter, sicker lives than do citizens of all other rich democracies, and that the U.S. has the greatest income inequality of all industrialized nations.

The report ties those conditions to stagnated wages that force many working people to seek government assistance for food. The share of households that have a wage-earner but also receive nutrition assistance rose from about 20 percent in 1989 to more than 30 per cent in 2015.

And the report found that the average annual wage of the bottom 50 percent of earners has been stagnant since 1980.

Eric McIntosh didn’t have those sorts of facts and figures to describe his life as a minimum wage worker. For him, it’s something he feels and lives every day.

“I wouldn’t know how to be able to explain it or show it to these people,” he said. “This is not a thing that I can reduce to words because it’s not something that I’ve had happen to me in words, I’ve had it happen to me in experience.

“I can’t make my empty stomach words for you.”

Poll: Matt Bevin Still The Most Unpopular Governor In U.S. Thursday, Jul 18 2019 

Gov. Matt Bevin is again the most unpopular governor in America and is getting less popular according to a new poll.

Bevin was first elected in 2015 and is seeking reelection this year, trying to become the first Republican governor in state history to serve two terms.

According to the new poll by Morning Consult, Bevin has a 56 percent disapproval rating and 32 percent approval rating.

Notably, Bevin has a 40 percent disapproval rating among Republicans following this year’s primary election, where relatively unknown challenger Robert Goforth, a state representative, won 39 percent of the vote to Bevin’s 52 percent.

Bevin’s approval rating has gone down four points since earlier this year, when the polling firm first tagged him as the country’s least popular governor.

Kentucky’s race for governor is rated as a “tossup” by Cook Political Report, which monitors elections across the country.

His opponent this year is Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, son of Bevin’s predecessor, Gov. Steve Beshear.

Morning Consult did not rate Beshear’s popularity or ask voters who they would prefer in a head to head match up between Bevin and Beshear.

During Bevin’s first term, Republicans have logged big political successes — winning control of both chambers of the legislature for the first time in state history and passing a variety of conservative initiatives.

But Bevin has also drawn fire from teachers and state workers for his attempts to overhaul Kentucky’s pension system and a series of inflammatory remarks about his political opponents.

The Morning Consult poll also rated U.S. Senators, and Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell is once again rated as the least popular senator in the nation, with a disapproval rating of 50 percent. Sen. Rand Paul has a disapproval rating of 39 percent.

Morning Consult said it surveyed 9,474 likely Kentucky voters over the last three months.

Retired Marine and farmer Mike Broihier joins race challenging McConnell for Senate Thursday, Jul 18 2019 

Mike Broihier

Lincoln County farmer and retired Marine Lt. Col. Mike Broihier announced Thursday morning that he is running for U.S. Senate next year, the second Democratic candidate to formally announce a challenge to six-term incumbent and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In the news release announcing his intent to take on McConnell, Broihier said his campaign […]

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