In Aesop’s fable about the grasshopper and the ant, the grasshopper spends his summer reveling in the sun, singing day after day, while the ant toils endlessly, gathering up food to store. The grasshopper watches the ant’s labor and cannot understand why he spends all his time working and doesn’t enjoy the summer sunshine instead.
The grasshopper finally learns the hard way, when winter arrives and he has no food.
Here in Appalachia, an economic winter is on its way, and our storehouses are looking mighty bare.
As we wrote in this space last week, industry and government projections point to a steady and irreversible decline in the coal industry. Given this year’s layoffs and mine closures, some might think winter is already here. But that is just the first chilly wind of autumn. Things are going to get much, much worse.
Over the next eight years, the coal industry is predicted to shed another 10,000 jobs in Central Appalachia. Eventually, the number of jobs is expected to rise again, but only because the thick, easy-to-mine seams will be gone. More people will be required to get what coal is left, but demand for coal will fall, keeping its price low, and Central Appalachian miners will produce 100 million fewer tons of coal per year by 2040. Any way you do the math, more miners plus low prices plus low demand can only equal low wages. In other words, coal mining will no longer be a lucrative career option for many.
But there is another side of the story, and it’s not any better. Local governments in Eastern Kentucky have grown addicted to coal, because of the tax income it provides. While much of coal severance tax is meant to diversify the region’s economy, many city and county governments use it to pay for routine needs, such as operating costs for such basic services as fire departments and senior citizens centers.
But what happens to coal severance revenue when less coal is mined? It falls.
What happens to those fire departments and senior centers when the money they receive is drastically cut? That answer largely depends on what we do today.
Local governments must begin making changes today. It is time to get serious about diversification in Eastern Kentucky, to build new sources of tax revenue so they can wean themselves from coal severance tax, before they are forced to go cold turkey. The only other choice is to give up and accept that our communities will soon be ghost towns.
Our state leaders need to fight harder than ever to return 100 percent of coal severance tax to the counties where it is generated. But instead of giving that money directly to local governments, so they can continue to artificially prop up their budgets, the portion that now goes to the state general fund must instead be locked in a trust fund, reserved for the coming day when coal severance revenue is gone. Leaders like House Speaker Greg Stumbo, Rep. Hubert Collins and Sen. Johnny Ray Turner need to begin that battle now and make it happen in the next session of the General Assembly.
Winter is coming. The storehouse is bare. What are we going to do — play in the sunshine or work for the cold days ahead?
— The Floyd County Times