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 their replenish 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 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."
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.