WASHINGTON - State officials had plenty of warning. Over the past three decades, two national commissions and a series of government audits sounded alarms about the dwindling amount of money states were setting aside to pay unemployment insurance to laid-off workers.
“Trust Fund Reserves Inadequate,” federal auditors said in a 1988 report.
It’s clear now the warnings were pretty much ignored. Instead, states kept whittling away at the trust funds, mostly by cutting unemployment insurance taxes at the behest of the business community. The low balances hastened insolvency when the recession hit, leading about 30 states to borrow $41.5 billion from the federal government to pay unemployment benefits to their growing population of jobless.
The ramifications will be felt for years.
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In the short term, states must find the money to pay interest on the loans. Generally, that involves a special tax on businesses until the loan is repaid. Some states could tap general revenues, making it harder to pay for schools, roads and other state services.
In the long term, states will have to replenish their unemployment insurance programs. That typically leads to higher payroll taxes, leaving companies with less money to invest.
Past recessions have resulted in insolvencies. Seven states borrowed money in the early 1990s; eight did so as a result of the 2001 recession.
But the numbers are much worse this time because the recession was more severe and the funds already were low when it hit, said Wayne Vroman, an analyst at the Urban Institute .
The Obama administration this month proposed giving states a waiver on the interest payments due this fall. Down the road, the administration would raise the amount of wages on which companies pay federal unemployment taxes. Many states probably would follow suit as a way of boosting depleted trust funds.
Businesses pay a federal and state payroll tax. The federal tax primarily covers administrative costs; the state tax pays for the regular benefits a worker gets when laid off. The Treasury Department manages the trust funds that hold each state’s taxes.
Each state decides whether its unemployment fund has enough money. In 2000, total reserves for states and territories came to about $54 billion. That dropped to $38 billion by the end of 2007.
Over the next two years, reserves plummeted to $11.1 billion, lower than at any time in the program’s history when adjusted for inflation, the Government Accountability Office said in its most recent report on the issue.
“If you look at it from the employers’ standpoint, they’re not going to want reserves to build up excessively high because then there’s an increasing risk that advocates for benefit expansion would point to the high reserves and say, ‘We can afford to increase benefits,’” said Rich Hobbie, executive director of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies.
A review of state unemployment insurance programs shows how many weakened their trust funds over the past two decades.
In Georgia, lawmakers gave employers a four-year tax holiday from 1999-2003. Employers saved more than $1 billion, but trust fund reserves fell about 40 percent, to $700 million. The state gradually has raised its unemployment insurance taxes since then, but not enough to restore the trust fund to previous levels. The state began borrowing in December 2009. Now it owes Washington about $588 million.
Republican Mark Butler, Georgia’s labor commissioner, said his state had one of the lowest unemployment insurance tax rates in the nation when the tax holiday was enacted.
“The decision to do this was not really based upon any practical reason. It was based on a political decision, which I think, by all accounts now, we can look back on and say it was the wrong decision,” Butler said. “Now we find ourselves in a situation where we’ve had to borrow money and that puts everyone in a tight situation.”