As reported by Ebru News             Feb 19,2011 

WASHINGTON (AP) – 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.

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, state 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 of the recession was more severe and the funds already were low when it hit, said Wayne Vroman, an analyst at the Urban Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank based in Washington.

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, just as the recession began.

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. Yet benefits have stayed relatively flat, or declined when compared with average weekly wages.

“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 states 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 nearly 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 reasoIt 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.”

In New Jersey, lawmakers used a combination approach to deplete the trust fund. The Legislature expanded benefits and cut taxes, as well as spending $4.7 billion of trust fund revenue to reimburse hospitals for indigent health care. The money was diverted over a period of about 15 years and helps explain why the state’s trust fund dropped from $3.1 billion in 2000 to $35 million by the end of 2010. The state has had to borrow $1.75 billion from the federal government to keep the program afloat.

“It was a real abdication of responsibility and a complete misunderstanding of how you finance an unemployment insurance fund to make sure you have sufficient money in bad economic times,” said Phillip Kirschner, president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. “In good economic times you build up your bank account, but in New Jersey, they said, ‘Well, we have all this money, let’s spend it.”‘

California took its own road to trust fund insolvency. Lawmakers kept payroll tax rates the same, but gradually doubled the maximum weekly benefit paid to laid-off workers to $450. The average benefit now is about $300 and is paid for about 20 weeks.

Loree Levy, spokeswoman for the California Employment Development Department, said lawmakers were warned of the consequences.

“We testified at legislative hearings that the fund would eventually go broke and would become permanently insolvent if legislation wasn’t passed to increase revenue,” Levy said.

California has borrowed $9.8 billion to keep unemployment insurance payments flowing. It owes the federal government an interest payment of $362 million by the end of September.

In Michigan, unemployment insurance tax rates declined from 1994 through 2001. The trust fund prospered during those years because of the healthy economy and low unemployment rate. Then the recession arrived and reserves plunged. In response, Michigan lawmakers passed legislation that lowered the amount of wages subject to unemployment taxes from $9,500 to $9,000. They increased the maximum weekly benefit from $300 to $362. The trust fund dropped from $1.2 billion to $112 million over the next four years. In September 2006, Michigan was the first state to begin borrowing from the federal government.

Other states held their trust funds purposely low as part of an approach called “pay-as-you-go.” Texas is a nationally recognized leader of this effort. Its philosophy is that, in the long run, it’s better for the economy to keep the maximum level of dollars in the hands of businesses rather than government. Texas had to borrow $1.3 billion in 2009. State officials have no regrets about their policy.

“By keeping the minimum in the (trust fund), Texas is able to maximize funds circulating in the Texas economy, allowing for the creation of jobs and stimulation of economic growth,” said Lisa Givens, spokeswoman for the Texas Workforce Commission.

The pay-as-you-go approach goes against the findings of a presidential commission that looked into the issue of dwindling trust funds in the mid-1990s.

“It would be in the interest of the nation to begin to restore the forward-funding nature of the unemployment insurance system, resulting in a building up of reserves during good economic times and a drawing down of reserves during recessions,” said the Advisory Council on Unemployment Compensation, which President Bill Clinton appointed.

Hobbie, from the association representing state labor agencies, said there’s no way to tell which approach is better over the long haul. He acknowledged that keeping reserves at the minimum in good times goes against one of the original aims of the program – to act as an economic stabilizer in bad times. That’s because businesses are asked to pay more in taxes, which leaves them less money to invest in their company.

A survey from Hobbies’ organization found that 35 states raised their state unemployment taxes last year.

Hobbie said he suspects that some states allowed reserves to dwindle out of complacency.

“I think we just got overconfident and thought we wouldn’t experience the bad recessions we had in, say the mid ’70s, and then this big surprise hit,” he said.

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Posted by: Mitchell Hirsch on Feb 17, 2011

As reported by Unemployedworkers.org

UPDATE: FEB. 17 – UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE SOLVENCY BILL INTRODUCED IN SENATE
Senator Richard Durbin (IL), with Senators Jack Reed (RI) and Sherrod Brown (OH), today introduced the Unemployment Insurance Solvency Act of 2011, which offers immediate tax relief to cash-strapped states and employers, preserves UI benefit levels, and creates strong incentives for states to restore their UI programs to solvency while also rewarding states that have managed their UI trust funds effectively.

In a statement, NELP Executive Director Christine Owens said, “Jobless workers, and we hope employers too, should be grateful for the leadership of Senator Richard Durbin and his colleagues Sherrod Brown and Jack Reed on the issue of unemployment insurance solvency.  Following the President’s FY 2012 budget, the introduction of the Unemployment Insurance Solvency Act sets the stage for a serious conversation on how to make sure that the safety net tens of millions of Americans have counted on during the tough times of the last few years will be financially secure into the future.”

The new bill is similar to the plan outlined by President Obama in his remarks last week, but adds further protections for benefits and additional opportunities and incentives for states to return to solvency in the long run. 

Original Post: Feb. 11

Unemployment insurance is just that — insurance — and it’s financed by premiums paid on workers’ paychecks and deposited into a trust fund.  However, the unemployment insurance (UI) trust funds in many states are not only insolvent, but now face heavy debt burdens due to their increased need for federal borrowing during this prolonged period of high unemployment.  Restoring them to financial health is essential to ensure that unemployment insurance benefits are there for workers when they’re needed, both today and in the future.  The Administration has outlined a significant framework to address the problem, which would provide needed debt and tax relief to states and businesses.

A new plan from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) would build on that framework, further strengthening the long-term solvency of state UI systems while avoiding benefit cuts and employer tax increases.  Workers need to pay attention to this issue.  The last time UI trust funds got hit this hard, in the 1980s, 44 states cut back benefits for workers.

Many states UI trust funds have been hit in recent years by a double-engine freight train.  First, for years many states have inadequately financed their UI funds, both by keeping their taxable wage base for UI too low relative to inflation-adjusted dollar values, and by taking a dangerous “pay-as-you-go” approach, which failed to build adequate reserves during periods of economic growth.  The graph below shows the substantial erosion in the inflation-adjusted value of the wage base that is subject to the UI taxes that fund state systems.  What does this mean?  It means that the employer of a dishwasher pays the same unemployment premium as the employer of a banker.  It does not take a degree in actuarial science to know that this is not going to work.

Value of UI Taxable Wage Base, Adjusted

And oh yeah, second — well, then came the Great Recession with millions of workers’ jobs being lost and the vastly increased need for unemployment benefits to help sustain unemployed job-seekers and their families.

Now, 30 states have exhausted their UI trust funds and are borrowing from the federal government.

The lead editorial in The New York Times yesterday, titled ‘Relief for States and Businesses’, explained the need for the Obama administration’s approach.  Here are some excerpts:

So many people now receive jobless benefits that 30 states have run out of their unemployment trust funds and are borrowing $42 billion from the federal government. Three of the hardest-hit states — Michigan, Indiana and South Carolina — have borrowed so much that they triggered automatic unemployment tax increases on employers, and the same thing is likely to happen to 20 more states this year.

….

On Tuesday, the Obama administration unveiled a smart proposal to delay those tax increases and provide some relief to both employers and state governments. Congressional Republicans reflexively objected to the idea, which could produce higher taxes in three years, but this plan provides relief that might stimulate hiring now when it is most needed.

….

Under the plan, which is subject to Congressional approval, there would be a two-year moratorium on the increased taxes that employers would otherwise have to pay to support the unemployment insurance system, which could save businesses as much as $7 billion. During those same two years, states would be forgiven from paying the $1.3 billion in interest they owe Washington on the money they have borrowed.

….

In 2014, when the economy will presumably have recovered somewhat, employers will have to make up for the moratorium by paying higher unemployment taxes to the states. Specifically, they will have to pay taxes on the first $15,000 of an employee’s income, instead of the current $7,000. But, even then, unemployment taxes will be at the same level, adjusted for inflation, as they were in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan raised them.

The administration is proposing to cut the federal unemployment tax rate in 2014 so that employers would pay the same amount to Washington as they do now. States, if they choose to do so, could collect more from each employer to repay the federal government and restock their own unemployment trust funds.

….

The full details of the plan’s costs and benefits will be available when President Obama submits his 2012 budget to Congress next week. When he does, both parties should take a close look at the numbers and seize the opportunity to keep this fundamental safety net solvent.

“It is a major step forward for the President’s FY 2012 budget to address the UI trust fund crisis,” said Andrew Stettner, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project and a co-author of the new joint NELP-CBPP policy proposal.  “Our proposal rests on the same core principles — giving employers and states relief now while taking concrete steps to restore the long term solvency of the UI trust fund as the economy recovers.  The plan endorses two key aspects of what the Administration’s proposal reportedly includes — raising the taxable wage base up from the inadequate, outdated level of $7,000 and endorsing a two-year moratorium on federal UI tax increases.”

The NELP-CBPP plan, detailed in a new report, would enable states to restore the solvency of their UI trust funds, avoid significant tax increases on employers during a weak economy, and prevent damaging cuts in UI eligibility and benefits for jobless workers, without increasing the deficit.  The plan also suggests additional debt relief for states and positive incentives for employers, rewards states that have maintained sound financing packages, and builds on existing federal protections of state benefit levels.

In a statement, the groups provide a summary of the plan:

• The federal government would gradually raise the amount of a worker’s wages subject to the federal UI tax (i.e., the FUTA taxable wage base). This would automatically raise the floor for the taxable wage bases in the states which by law cannot be lower than the federal wage base, helping those states rebuild their trust funds. (The federal UI tax rate would fall, however, so that overall federal UI taxes did not go up.)

• The federal government would provide a moratorium, until 2013, on state interest payments on their UI loans.

• The federal government would also postpone, for two years, the FUTA tax increases required to recoup the loan principal in borrowing states.

• The federal government would offer immediate rewards and future incentives for states that currently have and continue to maintain adequate trust fund levels.

• The federal government would excuse a state from repaying part of its loan if the state (a) enters a flexible contractual agreement with the U.S. Labor Department to rebuild its trust fund to an appropriate level over a reasonable number of years, and (b) agrees to maintain UI eligibility, benefit levels, and an appropriate tax rate over the loan-reduction period.

This plan would produce the following benefits:

• Employers would not pay higher federal UI taxes until the beginning of 2014, saving them $5 billion to $7 billion while the economy remains weak and $10 billion to $18 billion over the next five years. Also, employers would pay no additional assessments to cover interest payments in 2011 or 2012, saving them $3.6 billion.

• In addition, partial loan forgiveness that comes from a state’s commitment to build adequate trust funds would save employers about $37 billion by the end of the decade. Counting the interest payments on this principal as well, employers could save as much as $50 billion.

• All or nearly all states would assume a path to permanent solvency.

• Employers in responsible states would receive concrete rewards and a more level playing field between the states.

• Adequate trust funds would stabilize UI tax rates over time, avoiding the roller-coaster tax rates common in many states — very low during healthy economic times, rising rapidly during recessions — that harm businesses and the economy.

• States would maintain current UI benefit and eligibility levels.

• The federal deficit would not rise as a result of these policies.

“States face a tremendously urgent crisis when it comes to their unemployment insurance trust funds,” said Michael Leachman, assistant director of the Center’s State Fiscal Project and co-author of the report. “If federal policymakers address this crisis using our plan, employers could save as much as $50 billion in taxes and states would maintain the critical benefits they provide to people who lose their jobs.”