Sanford OKs aid for jobless

With Gov. Mark Sanford's signature Thursday, cash will be mailed to about 30,000 state workers who can't find jobs.

The federal government set aside tens of millions of dollars to extend unemployment benefits in South Carolina, at no cost to the state, but that money was blocked until this week when the Legislature fixed an oversight.

Sanford said the oversight is proof that the Employment Security Commission needs an overhaul. The commission manages unemployment benefits.

Because of the state's high unemployment rate, out-of-work South Carolina residents were eligible to receive an additional 20 weeks of unemployment checks through the federal stimulus package passed by Congress in February.

South Carolina, through an existing state law, had been giving out 13 weeks of those benefits, but that stopped when the number of people drawing unemployment checks fell earlier this month.

The legislation is retroactive. Eligible residents will receive a lump sum based on the number of weeks they missed. The should begin receiving payments next week. For others, the law change means their benefits will keep flowing.

The governor and others believe the Employment Security Commission should have done more to let the Legislature know that state law needed a minor change so that residents could receive the extended benefits. For the last year, Sanford has criticized the commission for poor performance during this recession and urged legislators to restructure it.

Legislators returned to special session this week to change the law, and Sanford commended them for acting quickly. He specifically credited Reps. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington and House majority leader, and Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, for bringing attention to the matter before summer adjournment, although their efforts did not prompt immediate action.

Bingham and Cobb-Hunter said change at the commission is on the Legislature's agenda for January. Sanford encourages it.

"This, from my prospective, really underscores the larger need for reform to the Employment Security Commission," Sanford said at the bill signing in the State House. "You can have good people in any system, but if you have a broken system, you still end up with suboptimal results. I think that's what we've consistently seen at the Employment Security Commission."

Sanford said the commission turned an $800 million surplus in the unemployment trust fund before the recession into $500 million deficit. The state is borrowing money from the federal government to continue providing unemployment checks, and that debt is projected to reach $1 billion.

Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, the state's chief accountant, also raised concern during the bill signing about the commission's bookkeeping.

"Different oversight needs to be strongly considered at that agency," Eckstrom said.

Cobb-Hunter said the commission isn't the only entity responsible for watching out for the needs of South Carolina's unemployed.

"There is enough blame to go around," she said.