This is seriously not good, particularly since extending unemployment benefits is one of the preferred mechanisms for economic stimulus (unlike other ways of getting money to citizens, this mechanism is likely to lead to pretty much all being spent, which is the object of the exercise).
Now some way will be found to make sure the checks keep coming, rest assured. But we are not far into this downturn (despite the NBER having tagged it as being a year old). Unemployment is sure to rise further, and odds are decent it will remain at elevated levels till at least well into 2010.
So this is yet another indicator of how strained the collective finances are, in this case state government.
From the New York Times:
With unemployment claims reaching their highest levels in decades, states are running out of money to pay benefits, and some are turning to the federal government for loans or increasing taxes on businesses to make the payments.
Thirty states are at risk of having the funds that pay out unemployment benefits become insolvent over the next few months, according to the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Funds in two states, Indiana and Michigan, have already dried up, and both states are borrowing from the federal government to make payments to the unemployed….
“You don’t expect the loans to happen this early in a jobs slump,” said Andrew Stettner, the deputy director of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy organization for low-wage workers. “You would expect that the states should, even when they are not well prepared, to have savings.”
The Labor Department said last week that initial applications for jobless benefits rose to 573,000, the highest reading since November 1982. It is recommended that states keep at least one year of peak-level benefits in their trusts, but many have not, and already some states are far worse off than others…
The situation puts states, many of them facing huge deficits, in an even tighter vise. As more people lose their jobs, the revenue base that the benefits are drawn from shrinks, making it harder to pay claims. Adding to that burden is that states will eventually have to pay back what they borrow….
States that come up short have the option of borrowing from the federal government, but if the loan is not paid back within the federal fiscal year, 4.7 percent interest is accrued, which cuts into states’ general funds…
In many cases, states that have kept unemployment tax rates artificially low — or in some instances decreased them — find themselves in the worst pickle now. Indiana legislators, for example, reduced the tax rates to businesses by 25 percent in 2001….
To recalibrate the balance, several states are raising taxes on businesses — often through an automatic increase that is triggered when fund levels are endangered — to keep the unemployment checks flowing…
“Many states have not raised that tax in years,” said Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers in Washington. “Some states have automatic triggers. But then of course you have businesses saying, ‘Whoa, you are raising taxes on me when we are having a tough time and it is a recession, too.’ ”
Still, some said they were thinking beyond the dollars.
“In these times of financial stress every extra cost is a concern,” said Linda Shelton, the spokeswoman for Lifespan, a large health care system in Rhode Island. “However there are many things that worry us even more. We are much more concerned about Rhode Island’s budget crisis, about rising unemployment, the rising number of uninsured and the continuing cuts to health care.”