Taxes and spending

Jake has a look at the latest WisPolicy Forum report on taxing and spending in the mid-west.

As Jake observes from the report, for the twenty-year period from 1997 to 2017, Wisconsin has led the mid-west in declining tax revenues, a commensurate decline in education spending, and a comparative increase in spending on Medicaid, corrections, and highways. These changes, Jake explains, are tied directly to the policy choices of recent years.

For example, a reason Medicaid spending is higher in Wisconsin because we refuse to take the expanded Medicaid in the Affordable Care Act, which would push those expenses onto the Feds instead of us (on a related note, a Pew report earlier this year placed Wisconsin 45th in the country for federal aid).

On the Corrections side, this is an obvious effect of the “lock em up” mentality of WisGOPs that has ended up with the state spending more on Corrections than the UW System. The “6th in the US” highway spending number can be connected back to a huge increase in local wheel taxes to fix roads that Scott Walker and the WisGOP Legislature refused to pay for.

Two things should be added to this post and the WisPolicy Forum’s tax report, however. First, the report is only dealing with changes in averages. So, the big shift in Wisconsin in the tax burden away from the wealthy and onto the shoulders of the middle-class is ignored. And, the over-reliance on property taxes in Wisconsin for funding local government and schools only makes this discrepancy worst, as property taxes based on a flat percentage are inherently regressive.

Second, several taxes are left out of this analysis completely, including unemployment taxes that employers pay on the first $14,000 of annual income paid to each employee. The 2018 Tax Measures Report has all of this tax information. Compared to the other fifty states, Wisconsin’s unemployment taxes are below average:

Tax amounts per covered employee in 2018

2018 Tax Measures Report at 64. As seen here, in 2018 Wisconsin’s average unemployment tax burden for employers was $255. For comparison, Minnesota’s was $340, Michigan’s was $352, and Iowa’s was $318.

Other measures likewise indicate that the unemployment tax burden on employers is exceptionally low in Wisconsin among mid-western states:

Average employer contribution in 2018 for every $100 in wages paid to an employee
Wis. 0.54
Minn. 0.56
Mich. 0.64
Iowa 0.69

For every dollar of tax paid in 2018, the amount going to
Benefits owed / Trust fund surplus
Wis. 0.75 / 0.25
Minn. 0.94 / 0.06
Mich. 0.63 / 0.37
Iowa 1.08 / -0.08

2018 Tax Measures Report at 62, 34, 33, and 26, respectively.

So, Wisconsin has the lowest unemployment tax burden of these four states, and 25 cents of every tax dollar being paid is going into the trust fund (only Michigan is saving more monies than Wisconsin for its trust fund).

Compared to these other states, then, employers in Wisconsin have little to complain about relative to employers in other mid-western states. And, this now very light tax burden in Wisconsin is very much the result of state policies that have made it difficult to impossible for employees to qualify for unemployment benefits or which make it difficult for employees to even files a successful claim.

Non-acquiescence: Employer tax cases

First, some apologies for the title to this post. Non-acquiescence is a ten-dollar word for disagree. Essentially, the Department has the ability per Wis. Stat. § 108.10(7)(b) to declare publicly that it disagrees with a decision of the Labor and Industry Review Commission but will not appeal that decision into the courts. The Department has this option because an appeal of a decision into the courts faces the risk of the Commission’s decision being affirmed. That affirmation would then turn that case into a precedent the Department would be required to follow.

NOTE: The Department is supposed to follow Commission decisions as precedent. This non-acquiescence process provides a mechanism for the Department to declare officially that it will NOT follow a Commission decision as precedent.

Second, from May 2018 to January 2019, the Department began regularly issuing notices of non-acquiescence in employer tax cases where personal liability for those taxes were at issue. In all of these cases, the Commission found that personal liability was NOT justified largely because the individuals being pursued were not actually the owner/controlling person of the employing entity. These fact specific inquiries, however, somehow led the Department to believe that the Commission was not applying unemployment law in the way the Department wanted these cases decided. Here are the cases:

In almost all of these decisions, the Commission found that there was NO personal liability for unpaid employer unemployment taxes because the person targeted in these cases essentially did not qualify as the owner or manager responsible for those unemployment taxes.

NOTE: Keep in mind that corporate protection and limited liability does NOT apply to unpaid unemployment taxes. See, e.g., EOG Environmental Inc., UI Hearing No. S1100346MW (27 Aug. 2013) (the Department filed a notice of non-acquiescence in this case as well) and Henry Warner, UI Hearing No. S9100679MW (16 July 1993) for excellent descriptions of the personal liability issues that attach to individuals regardless of incorporation when unemployment taxes go unpaid.

In other words, the Department is pursuing in these cases additional liability for unpaid unemployment taxes. The Department is arguing that the named person is the manager or owner responsible for paying unemployment taxes and that he or she failed to meet that responsibility. The Corley case provides an excellent example of what is going on with these cases (I spoke with the attorney who represented the defendant individual in that case).

In Corley, a father had sold his trucking business decades before to his son who took over day-to-day management of the operation, The father remained a figurehead director of the company, however, for the sake of assuring customers and others that the father’s experience and judgment were available to the son. The father had little to any active involvement with management by 2008 or so but continued to staff office and personnel matters as a favor to his son.

With the great recession, the company came on hard times and went under by 2011 or 2012. During the course of going under, unemployment taxes went unpaid. Collection efforts by the Department ensued against the son (not mentioned in the Commission’s decision, as the collection efforts at issue here were against the father).

Apparently, those collection efforts were not going as well as the Department wanted, so it targeted the father, who at the time was working as a trucker again and living out of his tractor-trailer cab because of the economic losses and debts he had incurred from the recession. This targeting of the father for additional revenue/collection explains why the record is so spotty about the father’s actual role and involvement in the company’s unpaid unemployment taxes and what was allegedly owed by the father.

The Commission in its decision essentially finds that there is no proof of any unpaid debts for which the father was responsible. This lack of factual evidence in the record about the father’s personal liability, however, is a principle the Department does not want to accept as a limit on personal liability. So, the Department filed its notice of non-acquiescence in this matter. The Department does not want “actual evidence” to serve as a limit on its claims of personal liability. On that basis, this declaration by the Department is shocking.

So, in this light this flurry of non-acquiescence declarations by the Department signals a state agency targeting small employers and the individuals connected to them in any way possible as sources for continued and never-ending debt collection. Claimants in concealment cases are not the only folks who have experienced the unforgiving and relentless push by the Department to collect no matter what and to collect even and ever again simply because the Department asserts that monies are owed. Should another recession occur, there are many, many employers who will feel this bite from the Department and face the unending and pervasive debt collection the Department wants.

The state of the unemployment trust fund and employer taxes

The January 2019 news about declining employer taxes was stellar. The May 2019 financial report reveals that the trust fund is in even better shape: nearly $1.9 billion as of April 30th.

Note: of course, benefit payments continue their decline, dropping 6.7% from 2018 numbers to $330.9 million as of April 2019. Employer taxes are also down $23.9 million, to $330.9 million, for January to April 2019.

At the May 22nd meeting of the Advisory Council, there was a presentation on the health of the unemployment trust fund. An excellent chart in this presentation presents the current situation:

Financial outlook p.4 graph -- benefits, taxes, and trust fund balance

As evident here, the trust fund is at a near record high while claimants’ benefits and employers’ taxes are dropping like rocks down the proverbial well. Two charts showcase how benefits and taxes have markedly declined since 2011 (benefits) and 2012 (taxes) relative to total payroll in the state.

Financial outlook p.6 graph -- benefits as a percentage of payroll

Financial outlook p.7 graph -- taxes as a percentage of payroll

So, what Wisconsin has experienced the last eight to nine years is ahistorical — only around 37% of claimants applying for unemployment benefits end up receiving any benefits rather than the more typical 55% of applicants.

Note: Department personnel continue to remark about how benefit payments are at record lows without offering any explanations or theories for why these record low benefit payments are occurring. As noted in this blog, this problem of record-low benefit payments is not unique to Wisconsin. But, it does seem from this same note that changes in how states are administering their unemployment law disqualifications are responsible for much if not all of this decline. Shouldn’t the Department finally take ownership of its own culpability for what has been going on the last eight to nine years or at least explain why the legal changes and administrative practices adopted under the prior governor to make it more difficult to claim unemployment benefits are somehow NOT connected to this decline in unemployment benefits?

At a minimum, Department staffers need to read Andrew Stettner’s excellent analysis of state unemployment systems and the changes in eligibility standards and application rates describes the impact of these changes and why these changes should be re-examined and most likely reversed.

To understand how healthy the unemployment trust fund actually is, three different scenarios for the future were played out in this presentation.

  • In one scenario, the economy continues along its current course, benefit payments remain anemic, and the unemployment rate returns to the normal 4-5% for Wisconsin. Here, the trust fund continues to be robust in the short-term. But, growth of the fund eventually slows, and the fund begins to decline slightly in the long-term.
  • In the second scenario, the economy continues along its current course, but benefit payments return to the historical experience of Wisconsin. While no recession is assumed to take place, the trust fund balance starts to take a hit in 2020 and a switch to the more aggressive tax schedule C will be needed by 2026 or so.
  • In the third scenario, a mild recession in 2020 occurs. Even with the anemic level of benefit payments continuing — 37% — the bottom of the trust fund drops out such that less than $500 million is left in the fund by 2022. And, in the long-term, the most aggressive tax schedule — Schedule A — needs to be triggered to start pumping money back into the trust fund.

In other words, these scenarios indicate that the trust fund balance — despite being at record levels — is wholly inadequate given the current size and scope of Wisconsin’s economy. Only a Pollyanna desire for the economic equivalent of sunshine and rainbows to continue indefinitely keeps the unemployment trust fund from imploding.

The current fetish with minimizing employers’ taxes is just one culprit behind this carefree thinking. Economists have begun explaining, that there is no correlation whatsoever between employers’ tax rates and business success. What remains to be seen is what the Advisory Council will do about all these problems: keep current policies and administrative practices in place or begin the process of changing these policies and practices. As many of these simply relate to the Department’s bureaucratic preferences in how it administers unemployment law (and, in numerous places represents a sharp conflict with that law), there is much that can be done immediately to correct at least the unparalleled decline in benefit payments before we find ourselves in the middle of a recession and with no oar available to avoid the waterfall towards which we race.

Improved on-line UI access for employers

The Department of Workforce Development has announced as of 27 Sept. 2018 improved on-line access for employers to their unemployment accounts.

Department of Workforce Development Announces Upgraded Unemployment Insurance Employer Online Services

MADISON (9/27/18) – Today, the Department of Workforce Development announced enhancements that will make it easier for employers to interact and correspond with the Department’s Unemployment Insurance program.

The first improvement is a streamlined and an easy to use UI Employer Online Services and SIDES E-Response sign-on. The second improvement permits employers to view benefit determinations and to file benefit appeals electronically.

“Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to offer unemployment insurance benefits,” said Secretary Ray Allen. “Now, we are leading again as the first state to provide an electronic method for employers to appeal benefit cases through the SIDES Exchange.” Allen noted that unemployed workers already have the ability to appeal such cases electronically.

Unemployment Insurance (UI) SIDES E-Response is a web-based system that allows electronic transmission of information requests from UI agencies to employers and/or Third-Party Administrators (TPAs), as well as transmission of replies containing the requested information back to the UI agencies.

Prior to the enhancements, employers had to use different login credentials for each response sent through SIDES. Employers are now able to use their UI Employer Online Services credentials to respond to inquiries through SIDES. This enhancement makes the system more user-friendly, saving employers time and money.

Newly Upgraded UI Employer Online Services include:

  • Single sign-on for UI Employer Online Services and SIDES E-Response – saves time, reduces complexity
  • Employer appeals can be filed online – view and print benefit determinations, file appeals, amend appeal responses and send attachments

Additional employer benefits include:

  • Safe and secure online services are available to employers for free
  • Eliminates delays and save money on employer paper mailings
  • Reduces improper payments and employer charging, keeping tax rates as low as possible

To sign-up, log-in, or learn more, visit https://dwd.wisconsin.gov/ui/sides

Essentially, these changes expand what is currently available to employer representatives via SIDES to allow all employers to have the same kind of access to their accounts. For small employers who do not have an agent handling their unemployment accounts, this added access is an obvious improvement.

The changes, however, will not be obvious without some exploring of the employer accounts by the employer. So, employers: log into your accounts at the link in the press release above and do some exploring.

Update on 2017 unemployment legislation

The first and probably only hearing on the Advisory Council agreed-on bill, SB399, is slated for 12:30 today, 4 October 2017, at the Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform in 201 Southeast of the Capitol.

This bill contains the Department’s proposals that the Advisory Council has approved (previously described in this post). Prior drafts of the bill are available here and here.

NOTE: The Advisory Council rejected Department proposals D17-03 (assessing employers for failing to provide employee records) and D17-06 (changing the burden of proof in certain unemployment cases) at the 9 August 2017 council meeting.

During discussions, management members of the Advisory Council made the following proposals:

  • Repeal the quit exception in Wis. Stat. § 108.04(7)(e). Under this provision, a claimant who quits a job within 30 days of being hired may retain their eligibility for unemployment benefits if the job that the claimant quit was not “suitable work” to begin with under Wis. Stat. § 108.04(8) OR the claimant could have refused to accept the under the federally-required labor standards provisions of Wis. Stat. § 108.04(9).
  • Treat state and federal holidays as working days for partial benefits if the employer is closed on those holidays. This provision is similar to what the Governor previously vetoed when added to the 2013 budget bill and which the council declined. See this post and this post.
  • Reduce the maximum number of benefit weeks based on the unemployment rate to 22 weeks when the unemployment rate is below 7% and 18 weeks when the unemployment rate is below 5%. The Council previously rejected this proposal from legislators. See this post and this post.
  • Amend definitions of misconduct and substantial fault in some way.

Labor representatives on the council made the following proposals:

  • Increase maximum weekly benefit rate (WBR) by $10 in 2018 and by another $10 in 2019.
  • Amend the trigger for tax schedule D to $1.8 billion. The current threshold for schedule D (the schedule with the lowest unemployment taxes) is $1.2 billion in the trust fund as of June 30th of the proceeding tax year.
  • Increase the taxable wage base in 2019 to $16,500 and then index that wage base in subsequent years.

The only available information about these proposals is available from this Department memorandum and a limited fiscal analysis. The Management proposals are not detailed in either document, and the description of the labor proposals is very general.

NOTE: An explanation for why management wanted changes to substantial fault and misconduct is provided, however:

Due to recent decisions of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and Court of Appeals regarding discharge for misconduct and substantial fault, the Management members of the Council propose to amend the definitions of “misconduct” and “substantial fault” in order to clarify legislative intent.

At the 9 August 2017 council meeting, the Advisory Council decided that none of these proposals would be taken up.

Finally, the fiscal estimate from the Department for SB399 has this information:

Assumptions Used in Arriving at Fiscal Estimate The bill makes various changes in the unemployment insurance (Ul) law, which is administered by the Department of Workforce Development (DWD). Compliance to the bill’s components will require one time IT work of 3,930 hours and one time administration work of 1,180 hours costing a total of $444,500. The funding will come from the UI Federal Administration grant. It is expected that the proposed changes will increase collections and save the UI Trust Fund $1,250,000 annually.

Long-Range Fiscal Implications It is expected that the proposed changes will increase collections and save the UI Trust Fund $1,250,000 annually.

These savings are largely due to the changes set forth in proposal D17-07 regarding new mechanisms for intercepting tax refunds, lottery payments, state vendor payments, and unclaimed property of taxpayers. See D17-07 at 19 (but note that the original estimates in D17-07 called for much more debt collection from employers to the tune of ~$3 million in light of all the changes being enacted in that proposal).

SSDI budget cuts in Trump’s proposed budget

Wisconsin Workers’ Compensation Experts has a good blog post about the proposed cuts in Social Security Disability Income (“SSDI”) benefits in the proposed Trump budget.

The claimed cuts are allegedly about fraudulent SSDI claims by people who can supposedly work. Actual SSDI fraud is minuscule, however.

Furthermore, SSDI benefits represent crucial wages for disabled individuals based on their prior earnings. As the blog post explains:

Through their contributions to Social Security, workers earn a measure of protection against disability retirement and death. (Disability insurance protects a worker against loss of earnings due to a significant work limiting impairment, and workers earn this protection by having worked and contributed to Social Security.) Many of my work-injured employees ultimately end up on Social Security Disability and this protection is particularly important to older Americans. Most people receiving Social Security Disability benefits are in their 50s or early 60s and most had only unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. Without a college degree, benefits are not significant (averaging about $1,200 per month). However, over half of Social Security beneficiaries rely on these benefits for 75% or more of their total income.

There is also already an existing and widespread program in place to encourage and facilitate SSDI benefit recipients returning to regular work. Ticket to work is a free and voluntary program by the Social Security Administration to assist SSDI benefit recipients with returning to the workforce. The employment support efforts available for SSDI benefit recipients are extensive. Presentations and training about the program are also available. The budget proposal from the current President appears to be little more than a massive cut to benefits and training and support without any acknowledgment of the difficulties disabled folk have in the workplace. Because of Ticket to Work efforts, many SSDI benefits recipients are already working limited jobs. They just cannot find the kind of full-time, regular work they once had prior to their disabilities.

Note as well that in Wisconsin, SSDI benefit recipients are prohibited from receiving unemployment benefits. Federal law, however, prohibits a similar disqualification for individuals receiving regular Social Security benefits.

NOTE: Because prohibitions on regular Social Security benefits are not allowed, the prohibition on unemployment benefits when receiving SSDI benefits also ends when an individual’s SSDI benefits become regular Social Security benefits — i.e., when the claimant reaches his or her Social Security retirement age.

Accordingly, Wisconsin employers have a financial incentive to hire SSDI benefits recipients, as these employees are prohibited from receiving unemployment benefits when laid off regardless of the layoff reason.

For those receiving SSDI benefits, however, the budget proposal represents a second strike: having already lost eligibility for unemployment benefits in Wisconsin, they are now slated to lose their SSDI benefits as well.

Trump’s UI budget proposals

Hat tip to Daniel J.B. Mitchell for this article discussing how the current President’s budget proposal could affect unemployment funding:

Trump’s budget presents new challenge to California’s long suffering unemployment fund
John Myers LA Times    5-28-17
After years of the state being deep in debt to the federal government for a loan covering the unemployment benefits of millions of Californians, state government officials have been promising the system was well on its way to stability.
And then came President Trump’s federal budget plan, with new rules and penalties for states whose jobless benefits outpace available dollars.
To understand what might be coming, it’s important to see where we’ve been. Unemployment insurance (UI) offers a weekly stipend of up to $450 for most workers who lose their job. The payments, for a maximum of 26 weeks, are paid from a payroll tax charged to employers.
Not surprisingly, unemployment payments rise and fall with the economy. In 2009, during the worst part of a recession when the unemployment rate hit 12.5% that October, state and federal government money was needed to keep California’s UI fund solvent. Payroll taxes simply couldn’t keep up with demand.
It’s worth noting that analysts saw this problem coming. State lawmakers made unemployment checks larger and raised the minimum wage in recent years, but the state portion of employer contribution rates hasn’t changed since 1984. The recession turned the problem into a crisis.
By the end of 2012, California owed $10.2 billion to the federal government for loans to the state’s UI trust fund. The debt has slowly been paid off, thanks to economic improvement that’s cut unemployment to 4.8% as of April. There’s also been a temporary surcharge on the federal government’s portion of the employer payroll tax. Current estimates are that the state’s UI fund will again be solvent in 2018.
But the president’s budget may present a new wrinkle. The Trump proposal specifically calls for a new “solvency standard” for unemployment funds, a requirement that states keep enough cash in their UI funds to avoid going into the red.
Here’s where things could get dicey. Because California’s UI fund remains in the red, any new federal mandates would almost certainly mean a new short-term cost to employers. The president’s budget suggests states should have enough money to pay unemployment benefits for six months of an “average recession,” though it doesn’t define what that means. States failing to meet the standard would have new limits on loans— the same kind of loans that kept jobless Californians with money in their pockets during the last recession.
Then there’s the reality that the only real solutions for California’s unemployment fund are to permanently raise the employer payroll tax, shrink the benefits or eligibility rules for workers or some combination of the two. An overhaul suggested by the state’s independent Legislative Analyst’s Office last fall included possibly cutting maximum jobless benefits by $75 a week and denying eligibility to some of the state’s lowest income workers.
So what’s driving the effort in Washington? It doesn’t look as ifit’s about being fiscally conservative. The Trump administration budget suggests new rules on state unemployment funds are in preparation for a proposal to create a federal mandatory paid leave of at least six weeks for workers — similar to California’s existing program, and a new mandate to likely be paid out of state UI funds.
Few state officials would disagree that California’s system for helping millions of unemployed workers was unprepared for the last economic downturn and that big changes to its financing system are long overdue. And so maybe the president’s budget plan — even if it fails to fully take effect — could be the needed spark for Sacramento lawmakers to roll up their sleeves on a long-term fix.
This proposal could well affect Wisconsin as well, despite Wisconsin’s unemployment fund being $1.2 billion in the black at the moment. This danger exists because the fund is still historically underfunded, according to the latest Department presentation. As explained in this presentation, the fund’s current “health” is due not to adequate funding so much as to record lows in benefit payments to claimants. Accordingly, modeling how the fund will behave in the future is difficult at best, and three possibilities are available: the historically low benefit payment levels continue, benefit payment levels return to normal, or something in between. Wisconsin’s unemployment fund only avoids danger with the first possibility.