Senate Majority Leader McConnell deals with Ky.’s economic plight

Published 9:28 am Thursday, October 12, 2017

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is right to go to bat for Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College which is at risk of losing critical federal and state financial aid because of high default rates on education loans among its students.

The region’s dire economic state is beyond the college’s control, as McConnell has said. “If students are unable to find jobs, they are unable to pay their student loans and not everyone can afford to move to a different region,” a McConnell spokeswoman explained.

But the college’s plight is just one symptom of a terminal economic illness that McConnell has shown little interest in curing. McConnell has done almost nothing to diversify the economy of Eastern Kentucky, which has remained one of this country’s poorest places, during his 32 years in the Senate.

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If his efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act succeed, not only would people lose health care, the region also would lose critical health-care jobs on top of the thousands of coal jobs lost in recent years.

Instead of solutions, McConnell has peddled the dubious promise that mining jobs would come back if not for Obama era efforts to lighten coal’s environmental footprint.

Now we’ll discover if that’s true.

In Hazard with McConnell on Monday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt proclaimed, “The war against coal is over.”

Pruitt came to coal country to announce that the Trump administration is revoking the Clean Power Plan, President Barack Obama’s blueprint for combating climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Pruitt’s announcement, part of a rollback of environmental and worker-safety rules for the coal industry, comes as six in 10 Americans say they want the government to combat climate change, on the heels of three record-breaking storms in two months, and as wildfires ravage California.

But what will easing the rules do for Kentucky’s eastern coalfield?

Not much, if you listen to experts who blame eastern Kentucky’s loss of coal jobs on competition from cheaper, cleaner natural gas and the high cost of mining depleted coal reserves.

Since Trump became president, coal production in Eastern Kentucky has increased but the number of coal jobs in the second quarter was down 2 percent from the year before.

Power plants are switching to natural gas so quickly that the utility industry is on target to meet the Clean Power Plan goals, even though the plan never went into effect because a court stopped it.

Coal was a huge part of eastern Kentucky’s past, but it’s not the region’s future.

McConnell is right to try to shield community colleges from being penalized for serving people in poor places. An amendment he’s proposing would protect Southeastern and other colleges in distressed Appalachian counties.

As the most powerful Kentuckian in Congress in 80 years, there’s so much more he could do.

The people of Kentucky’s mountains are far from the only Americans being left behind by economic displacement. They, along with other rural and post-industrial areas, need more than pandering from their elected leaders.

Young people in eastern Kentucky and elsewhere deserve better options than a life of underemployment and poverty or a one-way ticket out.

Lexington Herald-Leader