Sanford criticized for stalling federal cash to pay unemployment

COLUMBIA -- Three of South Carolina's leading Republican lawmakers are slamming Gov. Mark Sanford for his reluctance to accept federal money that could keep unemployment benefits for the state's jobless from ending on Dec. 31.

"I've been in the Senate 28 years," wrote Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "Never have I seen a more heartless and cruel act by a governor. ... I call upon him to end this reign of emotional trauma and request the loans."

The jobless rate is 8.4 percent -- the fourth-highest in the country. Top economic advisers have said they are projecting an unprecedented 14 percent rate next year, with more than 300,000 people out of work.

Sanford, a Republican, has said he doesn't think the state Employment Security Commission's statistics on unemployment are accurate and wants another financial audit of the agency that assesses the state's jobless rate before signing a federal loan request.

U.S. Department of Labor spokespeople have said it would be noteworthy for a state to fail to arrange for money to pay the benefits, and South Carolina has no emergency funding mechanism. If South Carolina does not apply for the federal loan, 65,000 to 70,000 people in South Carolina will stop receiving unemployment benefits on Jan. 1, said Ted Halley, executive director of the state's unemployment agency.

South Carolina pays out more than $14 million a week in benefits to about 77,000 residents, has tapped a $15 million line of credit from the federal government, but the governor has yet to ask for the $147 million needed to get the state through the end of March. South Carolina should apply for a loan, wrote House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.

"It is inconceivable that Governor Sanford hasn't already made this request of the federal government, and it would be tragic if he allows jobless benefits to run out, particularly at this time of year," Harrell wrote in the statement, which also included criticism from Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston. "Make no mistake, this is totally his decision."

Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer argued that the legislative leaders have been well-informed of the trust fund situation for months.

"These legislative leaders need to spend a little bit more time reading their mail and a little bit less time writing press releases," Sawyer said, noting that all three lawmakers had copies of letters dating back to September between the governor and Halley about trust fund concerns. "The Legislature has been derelict in its duty and has punted on this issue until after the election. They have stuck their heads in the sand, knowing that the unemployment trust fund was going to run out, and done nothing about it."