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State blasts loss of fed AML funds

Jul 5, 2012 - By Ben Neary, The Associated Press

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 the congressional action represents a $720-million hit to Wyoming over 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.

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