THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

States ignored warnings on unemployment insurance funds

By Kevin Freking
Associated Press / February 20, 2011

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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.

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, a liberal-leaning think tank based in Washington.

The Obama administration this month proposed letting states raise the tax on businesses or change unemployment benefits 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 have 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.

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.

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.