Here is more evidence that the balanced budget isn't quite what it seems: The federal government is withholding more than $1.1 billion in money it has collected to seal dangerous coal mines nationwide. As with the surplus collected each year from Social Security, Congress would rather apply this money toward other programs than use it as intended.
In the past, we have urged Congress to apply a tax on hard rock mining industries to help Utah deal with the approximately 20,000 abandoned and open mines statewide. Already, the federal government taxes surface-mined coal 35 cents per ton and underground operations 15 cents per ton. But if that money is merely disappearing into a budgeting black hole, forget it.By spending Social Security surpluses, the government is using money it will need someday to provide benefits to elderly workers. That is bad enough. But by spending coal-mining money, it is helping to cause death and serious injuries, and often the victims are children.
Abandoned mines are magnets for accidents. Last month, six young men in Pennsylvania took a wrong turn in a Jeep and dropped into a pit filled with cold water. Only one survived. In Utah, mining accidents happen from time to time, generating a great deal of concern. Then the concern drops from sight as public attention turns elsewhere. But the hazards remain, and empty mines continue to tempt reckless explorers.
The federal government does spend some of the money it collects from coal mines. Last year, Utah received $2.8 million to help in the cause. But, generally, the government spends about $100 million less than it collects each year, hence the surplus.
To be fair, mine rehabilitation is an inexact science. It can be frustrating, and it doesn't guarantee accidents will be avoided. Utah has managed to close more than 1,000 mines of various types in recent years, but some mines have to be closed over and over as amateur explorers continually break barriers.
But the permanent safety of a closed mine isn't at issue here; trust is. If the government collects money for a specific purpose, it ought to spend it for that purpose. The federal Office of Surface Mining identifies $2.5 billion worth of high priority mines that need to be closed. The $1.1 billion surplus would go a long way toward fixing the problem, perhaps saving some lives in the process.
A coalition of mining companies, workers and environmentalists is urging Congress to put the money where it belongs. Until their pleas are answered, the American people will have one less reason to believe claims of a balanced federal budget.