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Wearing masks, from left, Stephen Barnes, a member of the Revenue Estimating Conference, Greg Albrecht, legislative economist, and Manfred Dix, administrative economist, in this file photo from May 4, 2020.

The state’s two chief economists, who during the lean years double as punching bags for frustrated legislators, almost got through last week’s Revenue Estimating Conference with lawmakers smiling at reports of stronger than expected tax receipts.

Then, down came the hammer of the Republican Party’s latest talking point: enhanced unemployment benefits entice millions to stay home playing video games instead of going back to work. Twenty-one GOP governors have sworn off the extra $300 federal benefit, which expires in September, and a group of Louisiana business associations demanded Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards do the same.

Manfred Dix, the state’s chief economist, chuckled and pushed back from the witness table. “I’m not sure I want to wade into this discussion. It’s a hot potato.”

Greg Albrecht, the Legislature’s chief economist, gamely tried to point out that economic studies from last summer, when the federal payment was $600, seem to say that theory is balderdash.

“We find no evidence that more generous benefits disincentivized work either at the onset of the expansion or as firms looked to return to business over time,” found a Yale University study on July 14.

“Overall, our evidence suggests that employers did not experience greater difficulty finding applicants for their vacancies after the CARES Act, despite the large increase in unemployment benefits,” stated a July 20 joint study by the University of Pennsylvania, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and Glassdoor Inc., an international recruiting company based in California.

Louisiana has about 156,000 unfilled jobs compared to January 2020 before the pandemic forced businesses to close and cast off employees. As of May 14, slightly fewer than 290,000 people in Louisiana receive the supplemental benefit, according to Workforce Commission data.

A report released Monday by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco calculated that if seven out of 28 of unemployed workers received job offers, one of the seven would reject the offer.

Not willing to let facts flummox a good narrative, a murderers’ row of a half dozen self-described conservatives in the Louisiana House, one after another, pounced on Democratic Harvey Rep. Rodney Lyons’ proposal to increase Louisiana’s miserly unemployment benefit by $28 a week. The increase would move the state from the 49th lowest benefit to 48th by paying no more than $275 per week. Most would get less, and in any case the increase would start in January 2022, four months after the federal enhanced benefits expires.

Bossier City Republican Rep. Raymond Crews, for instance, recalled talking to a colleague about the difficulty with restaurant service. He surmised it was because of the $300 federal unemployment benefit, which boosts Louisiana payments to $547, at most. “It has been more beneficial to stay home and not work than to go to work. I hope we can restore that balance to where people see the dignity in getting a job and earning a living and actually contributing,” he said.

Lyons’ House Bill 610 failed on a 44-54 vote.

Ten trade associations representing Louisiana’s contractors, retailers, gas stations, restaurants, homebuilders and convenience stores, urged Edwards to follow Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi and cut off the extra $300.

“Only a few months ago, businesses were scaling back, reducing hours and limiting services because of the COVID-19 restrictions,” Dawn McVea, Louisiana director of NFIB, said in a statement. “Now, they’re doing it because they can’t find enough people to work.”

These are the same groups that oppose setting a minimum wage above $7.25 per hour and poured millions into legislative campaigns.

Perhaps those businesses could rely on market forces, rather than government, to ease their workforce problems. McDonald's and Chipotle fast food restaurants bumped up their pay to attract workers.

Waiters and waitresses make an average $19,940 per year in Louisiana, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Cooks bring in $21,350 annually and cashiers can expect to average $21,010 per year.

A family of four making $26,500 is considered poverty-stricken by the federal government. About 1 in 5 of Louisiana residents live in poverty. Half of Louisiana’s families make $49,469 or less, the state’s median income, which is about $30,500 per year less than the national median of $79,900, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Pointing out that Louisiana is heavily dependent on the tourism industry, which hasn’t recovered yet, Edwards said he’s reluctant to lift the benefits four months early without deeper study. He instructed his Workforce Commissioner Ava Dejoie to retain an economist to “quickly” study the issue.

“It’s not something we’re going to do prematurely," Edwards said.


Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.