We're grateful Gov. Mark Sanford decided to make the needs of 77,000 unemployed South Carolinians a higher priority than reforming the state's Employment Security Commission.
The commission needed a $146 million loan from the federal government to continue to deliver jobless benefits for the first quarter of the year. But only the governor could officially request the loan, and Sanford faced a deadline of 5 p.m. Wednesday to do so.
Sanford, however, had balked at asking for the loan, using it as leverage to demand a review of the commission's operation by the Legislative Audit Council. Sanford and some critics in the Legislature have questioned the accuracy of the commission's calculation of how many people in the state are out of work. Sanford also wants the agency to do a better job of sharing information with the state Commerce Department.
In a dramatic end to the showdown, Sanford agreed around noon Wednesday to request the loan, saying in a news release that he would not punish the state's unemployed for "one agency's utter disdain for accountability." Sanford, however, insisted that he will continue to pursue an ESC audit, threatening to fire the three-member unemployment oversight commission if the agency did not comply.
Two groups of lawmakers also requested an audit of the agency. And ESC officials seemed to indicate that they are open to the proposal.
ESC Director Ted Halley said Wednesday that he welcomed lawmakers' call for an audit and that it would reinforce federal and state audits that have found no problems with agency operations. He added, however, that the agency would need to upgrade its computer system to provide the county- and industry-specific unemployment data Sanford has asked for.
It is uncertain whether an audit would uncover the waste and mismanagement cited by Sanford. It is clear, however, that the rising rate of unemployment in South Carolina has increased the need for jobless benefits.
At 8.4 percent, South Carolina has the third-highest unemployment rate in the nation. The average weekly claim is $240, which adds up to more than $14 million a week.
And South Carolina is not alone. It is one of three states to request a loan from the federal government, and an additional 27 states could run out of unemployment funds this year.
The $146 million loan is intended to cover South Carolina's unemployment benefits through March. But if the fund is still empty, Sanford and the ESC again could be butting heads.
For now, though, we think the governor made the right choice in deciding not to jeopardize the needs of thousands of unemployed workers. While we hope the dispute between the governor and the agency is resolved, it would have been unconscionable to hold jobless benefits hostage in the midst of a severe economic crisis.
Gov. Sanford decided not to jeopardize the jobless benefits of workers in the state.