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States' jobless funds are being drained in recession

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Brian Breuhaus, of Fairfax, Va., Paula Griffith, of Silver Spring, Md. and Sharon Sen of Vienna, Va. share and discuss their daily life being out of work.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The recession's jobless toll is draining unemployment-compensation funds so fast that according to federal projections, 40 state programs will go broke within two years and need $90 billion in loans to keep issuing the benefit checks.

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The shortfalls are putting pressure on governments to either raise taxes or shrink the aid payments.

Debates over the state benefit programs have erupted in South Carolina, Nevada, Kansas, Vermont and Indiana. And the budget gaps are expected to spread and become more acute in the coming year, compelling legislators in many states to reconsider their operations.

Currently, 25 states have run out of unemployment money and have borrowed $24 billion from the federal government to cover the gaps. By 2011, according to Department of Labor estimates, 40 state funds will have been emptied by the jobless tsunami.

"There's immense pressure, and it's got to be faced," said Indiana state Rep. David Niezgodski (D), a sponsor of a bill that addressed the gaps in Indiana's unemployment program. "Our system was absolutely broke."

The Indiana legislation protected the aid checks, Niezgodski said, but it came after a give-and-take this spring in which Gov. Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. (R) said the state had been providing "Rolls-Royce benefits" and several thousand union workers countered by protesting proposed cuts at the state capitol. In January, the legislature is slated to consider a bill to delay the proposed tax increases intended to refill the fund.

In Nevada, Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) and legislators have feuded over the unemployment program, which is $85 million in debt to the federal government, with Gibbons accusing the legislature of "callous disregard" for not setting a tax rate.

And last week, a state task force in Kentucky recommended cutting benefits about 9 percent and imposing a week's delay in their payment. The average benefit check there is about $309 a week. The task force also proposed raising taxes.

"There were some moments of high anxiety" during the negotiations between industry and labor groups, said Joseph U. Meyer, the state's acting secretary of education and workforce development. "But in the end, the realistic options became fairly apparent."

State unemployment-compensation funds are separated from general budgets, so when there is a shortfall, only two primary solutions are typically considered -- either cut the benefit or raise the payroll tax.

Industry and business groups often lobby against raising the payroll tax on employers, while unions and other worker groups protest benefit cuts.

"We want to make sure Kentucky remains competitive and also maintain an environment of fairness," Meyer said of the negotiations.


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