Sunday, January 16, 2011

U.S. bills states $1.3 billion in interest
amid tight budgets

From Michael Cooper and Mary Williams Walsh of The New York Times on Jan. 14:
As if states did not have enough on their plates getting their shaky finances in order, a new bill is coming due — from the federal government, which will charge them $1.3 billion in interest this fall on the billions they have borrowed from Washington to pay unemployment benefits during the downturn.

The interest cost, which has been looming in plain sight without attracting much attention, represents only a sliver of the huge deficits most states will have to grapple with this year But it comes as states are already cutting services, laying off employees and raising taxes. And it heralds a larger reckoning that many states will have to face before long: what to do about the $41 billion they have borrowed from the federal government to help them pay benefits to millions of unemployed people, a debt that federal officials say could rise to $80 billion.

The states, when they borrowed the money, hoped that the economy would have turned around by the time the first interest payments came due, or that future Congresses might loosen the terms. But the economy did not turn around in time and the new Congress, dominated by Republicans determined to shrink the size of government, shows little appetite for deepening the federal deficit by bailing out the states.

The problem is not only the staggering number of people who have lost their jobs, but the fact that many states entered the downturn with too little money salted away in the trust funds they use to pay unemployment benefits, which they are supposed to build up in good times by taxing employers.

Those anemic trust funds ran dry quickly in many states as millions of newly jobless Americans began collecting benefits. So many states borrowed money from the federal government, helped by the stimulus act, which gave them a break on interest for nearly two years. But that grace period ended Dec. 31, and states will owe the first interest on those loans in September.


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