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Warthen: An intolerable failure to communicate

First, some sobering perspective: Some of you reading this will not have a job next month.

As bad as things were through November, the bottom really dropped out in December. South Carolina lost another 22,000 jobs that month. Nationally, 2.5 million jobs were lost last year — the most since 1945 — and of those, 524,000 were lost in December alone. To do that math for you, if the rest of the year had been as bad as December, we’d have been down 6.29 million jobs. And to do the same for South Carolina: Our state lost 54,100 jobs in 2008. If the whole year had been as bad as December, we’d have lost 264,000.

These things have a rippling effect — a business cuts back, more people lose their paychecks, they spend less in their community, so other businesses have to cut back, and so forth. So there is little reason to doubt that January (when we get those figures) will be worse than December, or February worse than January. Just as an early indication of that, the state Employment Security Commission said last week that in January it was paying out $19 million to $20 million a week, up from $13 million to $15 million a week in December.

One more thing to note, in case you don’t know it: As bad as things are nationally, they are worse here. The national unemployment rate is 7.2 percent; in South Carolina it’s 9.5 percent.

Got the picture? All right, then; let’s turn from tragedy to low farce — the ongoing spitting match between our governor and the aforementioned Employment Security Commission.

You know how our Legislature likes to cut taxes? Well, back in the late ’90s, it cut the tax that businesses pay into a trust fund from which unemployment benefits are paid. It made sense at the time, given the fund surplus. But since 2001, the state has been paying out more each year in unemployment benefits than the trust fund has taken in. Only in 2006 was the amount taken in even close to the amount paid.

So it is that, in light of the unemployment figures cited above, the ESC ran out of money and sought federal help to keep issuing checks. Unfortunately, the agency couldn’t get the money unless the governor signed off on the request. In most states, this would make sense, but in South Carolina — where only a third of the executive branch reports to the elected chief executive, with the ESC not being a part of that third — it can be awkward, especially with this governor.

Gov. Mark Sanford said he wouldn’t OK the request until the agency provided him with certain information. The ESC didn’t provide the information, and things escalated. The governor claimed the agency was wasteful and incompetent, and demanded an audit. The ESC, absurdly, resisted. Finally, after fighting about this most of the month of December, everyone climbed off their high horses long enough for the governor to OK the request.

Then, the ESC realized that things were getting worse and it would need even more money. The governor went ballistic. The commission resumed stonewalling him. The governor threatened to fire the commissioners.

On Thursday, the commissioners — Chairman McKinley Washington, Becky Richardson and Billy McLeod — met with our editorial board, and said they would have 90 percent to 95 percent of what the governor wanted to him by Feb. 9.

In the course of this interview, I asked: “Have y’all met as a group with the governor?” I got a chorus of simultaneous answers: “No.” “Absolutely not.” “Never.” (You can watch a video clip of this exchange on my blog.) Had they ever sought such a meeting? Oh, certainly, they said.

“This is the only governor,” said Mr. Washington, “that never met with the Employment Security Commission that I know of; I’ve been there eight years.” Mr. McLeod said the same was true for his 20 years.

As bizarre as this may sound to anyone not familiar with Mr. Sanford and his ways, it was believable. But Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said the governor had met with them, and he produced a letter, from agency Executive Director Ted Halley, which began, “The Commission and I would thank you and your staff for taking time from your busy schedules recently to meet with us.” It was dated March 25, 2003.

I asked Mr. Washington on Friday about this. He said that the meeting was actually with Eddie Gunn, then the governor’s deputy chief of staff. He said at one point “The governor stuck his head in the door, said hello... and that was it.” So why the letter? “That was just a courtesy statement, but he did not meet with us.” He added, “You try to be nice.”

This, ladies and gentlemen, is pathetic. Let’s say the governor’s version of events is true and Mr. Washington’s is wrong: His defense is that he met with the commissioners once, almost six years ago.

Bottom line: None of this idiocy would be happening if the governor were responsible for this agency, which he should be.

What! you cry — give this governor what he wants? Never! And indeed, this governor who claims to want greater authority for his office is, by his actions, the worst argument for such change that we have seen in many a year.

But consider: If he had been responsible for the agency and its mission all along, he never would have been able to play this blame game. As long as the agency is out of his reach, he can snipe at it, and gripe and complain, and blame those people over there, rather than take responsibility. He shouldn’t do that, and most governors wouldn’t. But since this one can, he does, and he gets away with it. (And by being so intransigent and defensive, the agency helps him.)

Given the growing number of people in this state who rely on this agency to enable them to put food on the table in their hour of greatest need, this absurd failure to communicate is intolerable.

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