Baker administration remains vague on UI holdup

Despite growing pressure from Republican and Democratic legislators, the Baker administration is continuing to offer vague statements on why it is having difficulty producing a financial accounting of the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund.

No monthly report on the trust fund has been issued since June and administration officials have provided no clarity on what the holdup is. The fund pays out unemployment benefits to employees who lose their job through no fault of their own and the fund’s costs are paid by assessments, or taxes, on businesses. The lack of information on the fund’s status means policymakers on Beacon Hill are flying blind in addressing what many believe is a multi-billion-dollar problem for businesses across the state. 

Federal records released early last month indicated $2.9 billion is in the account, but most of that money is already spoken for. The fund owes the federal government $2.3 billion for money it borrowed during the pandemic. Businesses who were over-assessed earlier in the year to bulk up the fund are now owed credits — some say that number could hit $500 million. And there are a host of other factors that could come into play, but the Baker administration has declined to get into specifics. 

A group of eight lawmakers — including Republican Sen. Ryan Fattman of Sutton and Democratic Sen. Jamie Eldridge of Acton, who rarely agree on anything — sent a letter to Baker late last week pressing for a full accounting of the fund or at least an explanation of why the information cannot be produced. 

“All of this is creating tremendous uncertainty for our small businesses, who need and deserve this important information,” the lawmakers said. 

The lawmakers suggested one cause of the holdup could be fraud and overpayments to recipients. “Based on research conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures and the US Department of Labor, there could be as much as $1.6 billion in UI overpayments and fraud in Massachusetts. It is important that we know precisely how much of this deficit is due to fraud and overpayment issues which, we should add, should not be up to employers to pay for,” the lawmakers said. 

Geoff Diehl, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, jumped into the fray on Monday, urging Baker not to sign the $4 billion American Rescue Plan Act spending bill until the $500 million appropriation already included for the unemployment insurance trust fund is augmented with additional money. Baker previously sought $1 billion in ARPA money for the fund.

In a statement issued late Monday, the Baker administration provided little new information. The statement said the administration was continuing to crunch numbers and offered no timeline for an accounting of the fund. “The Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development is continuing to reconcile the costs of administering benefit programs in 2020 and 2021,” the statement said. 

Despite the lack of information, the statement indicated the Baker administration is moving ahead with plans to borrow as much as $7 billion to put the trust fund on sound financial footing. Interest on the borrowing, authorized by the Legislature in the spring, would be paid by businesses but companies would benefit because the cost would be spread out over the life of the bonds rather than coming due all at once. 

“The administration is now working with the treasurer’s office and outside accountants to determine the appropriate amount of bond borrowing,” the statement said. “The final figure will include borrowing in the amount necessary to establish a stabilized trust fund balance at a level sufficient to support ongoing benefits even in the event of a sustained future economic downturn.” 

No information was provided on what a stabilized trust fund balance would be, although Gov . Charlie Baker indicated recently that $2 billion might be in the ballpark.

BRUCE MOHL

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Turf fight – The special election for the state Senate seat vacated by Joe Boncore is turning into an interesting turf fight.  Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who lives in East Boston, has the better name recognition and a long list of heavy-hitting supporters, while Anthony D’Ambrosio, a member of the Revere School Committee, is counting on strong support in his hometown and Winthrop to get him elected. Turnout will be key.

– The contrast between the two candidates is stark. Edwards is Black, 41, and an attorney, the daughter of a single mother who raised her while serving in the military. She won election to the Boston City Council in 2017 and has strong progressive credentials. D’Ambrosio is White, 25, and a political novice, having served one term on the Revere School Committee. He was born in Revere, but his parents moved to Boxford when he was young and he attended Phillips Andover prep school, Yale, and the University of Cambridge.

– One of Edwards’s biggest supporters is Boston Mayor Michele Wu, who is backing her former colleague on the City Council to help build support for her agenda in the Legislature. Wu is deploying volunteers to campaign for Edwards across the Boston portions of the senate district. “We need a coalition, we need a team across all levels to get big things done,” Wu says. Read more.

Grid concerns: The operator of the New England power grid said forecasts of a mild winter should make it possible to keep the lights on this winter, but he worries that regional energy constraints are a longer-term problem. Gordon van Welie says the region needs hydroelectricity imports from Quebec, but notes voters in Maine passed a law blocking the Massachusetts-financed transmission line that would deliver the power. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

A Springfield fundraiser for Gov. Charlie Baker is repurposed as a holiday party after Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito announce they are not seeking reelection. (MassLive)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

The Supreme Judicial Court is considering a case that will decide how the Springfield Police Department is governed — whether by a single person or a five-member commission. The legal question centers on whether the mayor or City Council has authority over the department. (MassLive)

Although she recently unveiled a plan to make available housing for all of those camped out in the area of Mass. and Cass, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said there is no firm timetable for resuming removal by the city of tents at the makeshift encampment. (Boston Globe)

Boston city councilors hear testimony calling for a return to an elected school committee, a move that voters overwhelmingly endorsed in an advisory ballot question last month. (Boston Globe

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

More than 350 psychiatric beds have been eliminated amid staffing shortages, according to a Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association report. (Gloucester Daily Times)

Hospitalizations of people with COVID continue to rise, with the state reporting more than 1,100 hospital patients who have tested positive for the virus. (MassLive)

ELECTIONS

Former state senator Dianne Wlkerson, who went to federal prison for taking illegal payoffs to grease the skids for a liquor license applicant, says she’s considering running for her former seat, which Sonia Chang-Diaz is vacating to run for governor. (Dorchester Reporter

A losing Springfield City Council candidate asks the court to void the election results, citing election violations and voter intimidation. (MassLive)

The US Justice Department sues to block Texas redistricting plans for congressional and state legislative seats, saying the state’s approach shortchanges minority voters. (NPR)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Workers in various trades are anxiously awaiting the promised boom in employment from the new offshore wind sector taking root on the South Coast. (New Bedford Light

EDUCATION

South Hadley High School spends $1.4 million addressing mold at the school. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

ARTS/CULTURE

Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art receives a donation from investment guru Peter Lynch of 27 works of art, including paintings by Pablo Picasso and John Singer Sargent. (WBUR)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

John Judge, who currently heads the Appalachian Mountain Club, will become the new chief executive of Trustees of Reservations, the country’s oldest land trust. (Boston Globe

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Suspended Newton District Court Judge Shelley Joseph, who is seeking to have charges against her thrown out for letting an immigrant evade ICE officials, had her case heard on Monday before the First Circuit federal appeals court. (Boston Herald

Officer Victoria Denneno has been named the Stoughton Police Department’s first LGBTQ+ community liaison. (The Enterprise

PASSINGS

Jerome Rappaport, an outsized Boston figure who was motivated in his 20s by a quest for “good government” to help John Hynes defeat James Michael Curley and went on to redevelop the city’s West End – drawing the ever-lasting opprobrium of some for using government powers to raze an existing working-class neighborhood – died at age 94. (Boston Globe

Fred Hiatt, editor of the Washington Post editorial page, died at age 66, 12 days after having suffered a cardiac arrest while visiting his daughter in New York City. (Washington Post

Kim Taylor, 73, of Wellesley, dies after being rammed by a sheep while volunteering feeding livestock at Cultivate Care Farms in Bolton. (Telegram & Gazette)