OLYMPIA — Changes to the state’s unemployment insurance system that will stop tax increases for businesses and temporarily increase benefits for jobless workers were signed today as the first completed legislation of this session.
With all sides applauding each other for bipartisan and bicameral cooperation, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed one bill that will stop a scheduled tax rate increase that would have cost businesses an estimated $300 million this year. That bill got its final approval in the House of Representatives Wednesday, in time to notify businesses of the lower rates that affect payments they will make in April.
Another bill passed the Senate this morning that permanently readjusts rates and temporarily provides an extra $25 a week in unemployment benefits to those out of work. It also increases training programs available for unemployed workers to help move them into jobs that have more likelihood of continuing in a changing economy.
“This is something we really need to do,” Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, said shortly before the Senate voted 41-4 to approve the bill that previously passed the House 98-0.
Neither the rate adjustments nor the increase in benefits affect the state’s looming budget crisis, said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Wells, D-Seattle. That’s because unemployment benefits are paid out of a trust fund that is separate from the state’s General Operating Fund budget.
The employers’ tax rate adjustment is really a smoothing of the rate that state law was forcing up even though the unemployment system is well-funded, Holmquist Newbry said.
The unemployment insurance trust fund is the healthiest in the United States, Gregoire said after signing the two bills. It currently has some $15 billion in its accounts, and will have about $14.3 billion even with canceling rate increases and payments for higher benefits, she said.
As leaders of both parties from both chambers crowded into the governor’s conference room for the ceremonial bill signing, Gregoire joked that such good-natured gatherings are “everyday occurrences.”
“We all worked together,” she said later. “I’m not going to tell you it was always friendly and going great guns.”
Legislative leaders said that the cooperation could continue next week to pass a supplemental budget that will help cut the state’s projected deficit of about $600 million through the end of June.
“I hope so,” said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, adding that the two chambers are close to agreeing on a supplemental budget that will continue some of the state’s key social service programs, although at reduced levels.