Get money for benefits

Gov. Mark Sanford might be justified in questioning the performance of the state's Employment Security Commission. But that should not stand in the way of requesting a federal loan to help cover the costs of unemploy-ment benefits for the first quarter of the new year.

Sanford must request officially the $146 million loan before it can be approved. In recent weeks, he has balked at doing so unless the ESC would submit to an independent performance audit.

Sanford questions the accuracy of the commission's calculation of how many people in South Carolina are out of work. He also wants the agency to do a better job of sharing information with the state Commerce Department.

Thankfully, the state appears close to an agreement that would make the loan possible. ESC board members and staff met with the governor to discuss conditions under which Sanford would sign a request for the loan, and he agreed to do so after ESC chief Ted Halley signs onto the plan.

The state already has borrowed $15 million to pay benefits through the end of the year. The new loan would pay them through March.

Sanford's concerns about the efficiency of the commission might or might not be justified. But too much is at stake to play what amounts to a game of chicken with unemployment benefits.

In a recent news release, the commission said it calculates the state's jobless rate the same way every other state does, and an independent firm audits the results every year. Those benefits now total more than $14 million a week for about 77,000 people.

The state's jobless rate has been consistently high for years and was third-worst in the nation in November at 8.4 percent. The recent increase has mirrored the national economic downturn, which, among other things, resulted in lower-than-normal holiday hiring by retailers. Forecasters say the state's jobless rate could hit a record 14 percent next year.

States are legally required to pay jobless benefits, and at least two other states already have requested federal loans to help meet the growing demand. The National Association for State Workforce Agencies estimates a total of 30 states will see their benefit funds evaporate over the next 12 months because of rising unemployment.

These benefits are necessary to see families through times of hardship and help them find new jobs. Allowing the benefits to run out would be unconscionable.

Perhaps, as Sanford and some other critics suggest, the commission could do a better job of steering jobless South Carolinians to job openings. But holding unemployment benefits hostage in the midst of an economic crisis is not the answer.

First, get the money necessary to provide benefits; then, fine-tune the commission's operation.