South Carolina's more than 236,000 unemployed workers could have to take a drug test in order to receive jobless benefits, according to a proposal by Republican gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley on Tuesday.
But Haley's Democratic opponent, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, criticized Haley for asking the state's jobless agency - while a sitting lawmaker - to delay a 2005 audit of her parents' clothing business. A former agency commissioner said Haley called her and requested the delay.
Former Employment Security commissioner Becky Richardson said Haley called her in 2005 to request the agency delay an audit of her parents' business, Exotica International. Richardson said she received two similar requests in six years at the agency, but believed it was common to honor the requests.
"She called me personally," Richardson said. "It was a busy time at the business.
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"I didn't know that we could do that or would do that," she said, later learning "it (a delay) obviously isn't that difficult."
Another former commissioner, Billy McLeod, said he requested about two or three delays a year during his 22 years at the agency. Though requests were infrequent, McLeod said, delays were routinely granted to any business owner who asked.
"It wasn't a common thing," he said, "but it certainly happened before."
Sheheen, D-Kershaw, said Haley was using her office to delay the audit. Haley said there was no attempt to strong-arm the agency.
Back and forth bickering
The audit was one aspect of a day of back and forth bickering over the state's bankrupt jobless benefits fund and who was to blame for running up $886.7 million in federal loans since December of 2008. Those debts will have to be repaid by S.C. businesses, and the loan interest could be paid by S.C. taxpayers.
Though employees fired for using drugs, alcohol or missing work can be disqualified from jobless benefits, Haley said testing the unemployed was one of several steps in ensuring the newly restructured Department of Employment and Workforce - now a cabinet agency - only pays benefits to those who have earned them.
"We will make sure, above all, that there will be no ... benefits if they do not pass a drug test," Haley said.
"I think the people of this state deserve that. I think personal responsibility matters."
The idea was proposed last year during Legislative debate, but some argued denying benefits to those who fail a drug test is unconstitutional. State Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, proposed the department conduct a urine drug test on a random sample of 500 first-time benefit recipients, and report the findings to the General Assembly by Nov. 1.
If more than 10 percent of the random sample tested positive for drug use, then 3 percent of all new benefit recipients would have to be drug tested going forward as of Feb. 1, 2011. The legislation, which was withdrawn, would also have required lawmakers to be drug tested.
"You can't take away the rights of individuals (just because they are unemployed), when those rights are guaranteed in the U.S. Bill of Rights," said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, and an opponent of the idea. "It's sort of ludicrous. It's like telling a bunch of seamstresses working at a local plant - churchgoing, law-abiding citizens - that all of a sudden, when the plant closes, they've become drug users."
Sue Berkowitz with the Appleseed Legal Justice Center agreed.
"Losing your job is an incredibly tragic occurrence," Berkowitz said. "It's absolutely the wrong way to go for South Carolina."
Otis Rawl with the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, which has endorsed Sheheen, said the group supports drug testing to ensure unemployed workers are hirable. Rawl said the only way to know if the proposal is unconstitutional is to pass the law and test it in court.
Greenville-based GOP strategist Chip Felkel said Haley's idea is not likely to turn off her voters.
"It doesn't hurt her at all," Felkel said. Though the recession has pushed many more people onto unemployment, Felkel said they could have a first-hand view of those abusing the benefits.
"It might appeal to some of them," Felkel said.
Sheheen used the proposal to dig at Haley, saying he would support the idea if Haley agreed those running for public office should pay their taxes on time. Haley family tax records show they filed and/or paid income and property taxes late several times in the past six years, accruing more than $4,500 in penalties and interest.