No tax hikes image

Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, center, gestures as he talks with Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, left, the governor's chief budget adviser, and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, right, on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. The three men, all members of the Revenue Estimating Conference, spoke ahead of the conference's meeting. 

The steep drop in Louisiana's unemployment trust fund balance during the coronavirus outbreak won't trigger a decline in benefits for jobless workers or tax hikes on businesses, state lawmakers have decided.

The House unanimously gave final passage Tuesday to a package of measures by Senate President Page Cortez and Sen. Mike Reese, both Republicans, that will keep the unemployment benefits and tax rates on businesses that pay into the fund at the status quo through 2021.

The legislative package included Senate Concurrent Resolutions 5 and 9 and Senate Bill 55. The Senate already had unanimously agreed to the proposals, so Tuesday's votes were the last needed.

However, lawmakers haven't found a long-term fix to refilling the fund that topped $1 billion in March and was drained as hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs during the pandemic. Louisiana, like many other states, is borrowing money from the federal government to pay jobless benefits.

Legislators meeting in the monthlong special session have steered $85 million to the unemployment trust fund, a bill awaiting a decision from Gov. John Bel Edwards, who supports the infusion of cash. But that funding isn't enough to return the unemployment trust fund to stability. "Right now we're still dishing out more than we're taking in. Hopefully we'll get people back to work soon," said Rep. Beau Beaullieu, a New Iberia Republican.

Without action from lawmakers, the emptying of the trust fund would have required businesses to pay more taxes into the fund to refill it. Meanwhile, benefits to jobless workers — which at a maximum of $247 per week are already among the nation's lowest — would have fallen to the country's bottom rate of $221 a week.

Lawmakers argued businesses and out-of-work residents struggling in the coronavirus outbreak shouldn't be further penalized. Beaullieu said the move will save businesses $60 million in taxes. Lawmakers said the delay of tax hikes and benefit drops will buy some time for the Democratic governor and Republican legislative leaders to find a long-term plan for returning the trust fund to solvency and repaying the government loans.

The legislation "will provide some breathing room," said Rep. Mike Echols, a Monroe Republican.

Edwards and lawmakers are hoping Congress will intervene to help states after the November election.

Tuesday's completion of the unemployment trust fund plans was one of the first major issues to be settled in the special session, which must end Oct. 27. Lawmakers have decided little else on disagreements involving how to curb Edwards' emergency powers and loosen his coronavirus restrictions.

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