Lawmakers find common ground on unemployment insurance bill

Allow tax deductions on up to $10,000 of benefits; cost estimated at $126m

TIME-SENSITIVE LEGISLATION aimed at stabilizing the state’s unemployment system, providing targeted tax relief to employers and workers, and creating a COVID-19 emergency sick leave program requires one final vote in each chamber after the House and Senate reached agreement on the bill’s details Monday.

After hours of talks, lawmakers ironed out differences between the underlying versions of the bill  to produce a compromise without a formal onference committee, teeing up the roughly $351 million bill and its $7 billion borrowing authorization to reach Gov. Charlie Baker as soon as Thursday.

The branches agreed on most aspects of the bill in their respective versions, but took different approaches to tax breaks on unemployment benefits, a commission studying the unemployment system, and length of the special obligation bonds that will be issued to help the state cover massive demands on its benefits system.

Under the compromise amendment (H 95) adopted in both branches early Monday evening, Massachusetts taxpayers whose household incomes do not exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty line could deduct the first $10,200 in unemployment benefits they received in 2020 and 2021.

That mirrors the Senate’s original plan, rather than the more restrictive House language allowing the same eligible taxpayers to deduct 5 percent of their unemployment earnings. Senators estimated the tax breaks would cost $126 million.

The amendment also calls for a 21-member commission to study the solvency of the unemployment insurance trust fund and authorizes 20-year bonds to address immediate needs and keep the fund solvent.

Massachusetts has faced a flood of joblessness during the COVID-19 pandemic, peaking at a revised rate of 16.4 percent in April and remaining elevated at 7.8 percent in January. The needs depleted the reserves used to pay benefits, prompting the Baker administration to borrow $2.2 billion from the federal government.

Gov. Charlie Baker originally proposed the long-term borrowing in December, saying the state could reduce its borrowing costs in the long run by paying back the federal loans with bonds that carry lower interest rates.

The proposal also aims to soften the financial blow businesses are about to sustain as a result of the pandemic’s massive surge in unemployment while also offering relief to workers hit by joblessness.

Without action by the end of March, employers across Massachusetts will face a roughly 60 percent average increase in the taxes they pay to fund the unemployment system. The bill would freeze rate schedules for two years, limiting the increases to 16 percent next year.

The bill would also impose an additional surcharge on employers through 2022 to pay back interest on the federal loans, which Labor and Workforce Development Committee Co-chair Rep. Josh Cutler estimated would be roughly $57 per employee in 2021 and $66 per employee in 2022.

Lawmakers added several other sections to Baker’s UI proposal to form the final bill.

The legislation creates a $75 million COVID-19 emergency sick leave program, allowing full-time workers to access up to 40 hours of paid time off if they contract the virus, need to quarantine, or must care for a family member affected by the pandemic. Part-time workers would also qualify for varying amounts of time off.

Another section of the bill exempts employers from state tax burdens on any forgiven 2020 loans through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which the Senate Ways and Means Committee previously estimated would cost Massachusetts $150 million.

Both branches adopted the compromise and an emergency preamble during Monday sessions. The bond bill needs a roll call to enact in each chamber, and it appears those votes will be held at formal sessions on Thursday.

Sam Doran contributed to this report.