WASHINGTON -- In March, the commissioner of Georgia's Department of Labor, Mark Butler, explained how the state's unemployment insurance trust fund had gone broke.
"In an attempt to curry favor with Georgia businesses, Gov. Roy Barnes declared a 'tax holiday' before Barnes' failed 2002 re-election campaign," Butler wrote. "Businesses stopped paying into the trust fund. By the time we hit the Great Recession –- and many, many Georgians became unemployed through no fault of their own -- the $2 billion Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund had been reduced by $1.3 billion."
"Plainly speaking," Butler added, "Georgia had not saved for that rainy day."
Georgia lawmakers agreed to much of Butler's plan to restore the trust fund to solvency -- cutting the duration of benefits in an effort to save money. The legislature also modestly increased the amount of wages subject to the state payroll taxes that fund the unemployment system.
While the cuts to unemployment benefits were relatively drastic, the tax cutting that preceded them was typical. Most states failed to make prudent decisions about funding their unemployment trust funds over the years, according to a comprehensive report from the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group.
States now owe $43 billion to the federal government, according to NELP policy analyst Mike Evangelist, and it's likely lawmakers will rely more heavily on benefit cuts than tax hikes in order to get out of debt.
"Over the past 30 years, support for accepted norms in the UI program has been systematically eroded, with state lawmakers now more willing to go after long‐standing features of the program, such as the duration of state benefits or suitable work protections that were previously seen as untouchable," Evangelist wrote in the report.
Businesses pay both state and federal unemployment taxes for each worker on payroll -- state taxes fund the first 26 weeks of benefits for laid off workers, and federal taxes pay for extra benefits that Congress puts in place during recessions. When a state unemployment trust fund runs dry, the state can borrow from the federal government to pay benefits. If a state borrows for too long, federal payroll taxes go up.
When under pressure to refill trust funds, it used to be that state lawmakers would seek savings by tightening eligibility rules. But this year Georgia joined six other states states that had cut the standard 26 weeks duration of benefits for the first time ever. While each state differed in how they cut benefits, Georgia put benefits on a sliding scale that goes up and down with the state's unemployment rate. When the rate goes down, the duration of benefits could be as low as 14 weeks. The upper limit is 20 weeks.
The states were strapped for cash because tens-of-millions of additional people filed claims, but also because of tax cuts.
According to Evangelist, 31 states cut unemployment taxes 20 percent or more between 1995 and 2005. And from 2000 to 2009, the overall percentage of wages subject to state unemployment taxes fell to the lowest level in the history of the federal-state unemployment system. In 2007, states were collectively $38 billion shy of recommended trust fund reserves.
Doug Holmes, an unemployment insurance expert who advocates for businesses, suggested states would be unwise to try and meet funding thresholds "because to do so would require dramatic increases in state unemployment taxes that would place these states in an uncompetitive position to attract and keep businesses in their states."
It's unlikely states will want to hike taxes to pay for unemployment, Evangelist wrote in his report. "Realistically, it is unreasonable to believe that states will close this gap without doing further harm to the UI program’s ability to sustain unemployed workers and their families through periods of temporary job loss."