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Lawmakers, groups work on fix to avoid future borrowing to cover benefits for jobless Ohioans

By MARC KOVAC GateHouse statehouse bureau Published: April 18, 2017 4:33 PM

COLUMBUS -- Lawmakers and representatives of labor and business groups continue to haggle behind the scenes on reforms to the state's unemployment compensation system, with an eye now toward a potential agreement by midyear.

Rep. Kirk Schuring (R-Canton), who has been helping to spearhead the process for the general assembly, said he'd like to see movement on the issue by the summer break.

"I think we made progress," Schuring said. "There were some things we agreed to disagree on. We had the business groups make some suggestions and the employees, their associations, labor, made suggestions as well."

Lawmakers had hoped to finalize negotiations by earlier this month, but conversations continue, Schuring said.

At issue is the future solvency of the state's jobless assistance program, after Ohio had to borrow billions of dollars from the federal government to meet its unemployment compensation obligations during the recession. Lawmakers made provisions last year to pay off the remainder of that debt, and they've debated legislation to prevent comparable borrowing for the program in the future.

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Lawmakers last session considered bills that would have frozen unemployment benefit amounts, reduced the maximum number of weeks residents could receive compensation and raised the taxable wage base for employers, thus increasing what they would pay into the system.

Late last year, the Ohio House and Senate passed a temporary fix, freezing unemployment benefits for two years starting in 2018, slightly increasing taxes paid by employers into the system and eliminating interest penalties paid by employers when the state has to borrow from the federal government to cover benefits.

Prior to finalizing those changes, lawmakers, labor and business groups announced continued efforts to reform the system, with an eye toward legislation by April 1. Labor and business groups also agreed to pay the costs of actuarial studies to determine the potential impacts of any proposed law changes, including the possible creation of a separate fund to provide supplemental unemployment benefits.

Schuring said a meeting earlier this month with the groups involved in negotiations went well, though a final solution has not yet been reached.

Lawmakers could include a final package of law changes on the issue in the biennial state operating budget, which is expected to move by the end of June.

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"I can't predict what's going to happen," said Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, who's been involved in the discussions. "I can tell you that the conversations have been productive and respectful I remain hopeful. I think it's been a productive conversation. I do think that, for the good of the fund and the good of the system, that some changes are necessary. I remain hopeful that we'll be able to get to a place where we can be supportive, but we're not there yet."

Robert Brundrett, director of public policy services for the Ohio Manufacturers' Association, said he also remained hopeful that the different sides could reach agreement in the next couple of months.

But it's not an easy process to reach consensus.

"We've flushed out numbers, now it's just a matter of making the hard choices really," Brundrett said. "We're still hopeful. I think this is the first time in a long time that everyone is coming here with an open attitude of, 'Hey, we've got to make some hard choices.'"

He added, "What we really want out of this is a solvent system that can withstand recessions in order to keep the certainty in the process for our members.

Marc Kovac covers the Ohio Statehouse for Gatehouse Media. Contact him at mkovac@recordpub.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.


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