S.C. legislative leaders said Friday they will fix a rule so that thousands of out-of-work residents will not lose additional federal unemployment benefits.
But they would not commit to returning to Columbia for a special session - a move that could open the door to the impeachment of Gov. Mark Sanford - to resolve the benefits issue.
About 7,000 jobless South Carolinians will lose up to 20 weeks of extended unemployment payments when their benefits expire this week because lawmakers did not change a key index earlier this year.
Greg Foster, spokesman for House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said staffers are looking for ways - short of a special session - to change the index.
But staff at the embattled Employment Security Commission said the change must be made by law. "The legislation would have to be changed," said deputy director Alan Larson. "It can't be just policy."
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said Friday lawmakers will do "whatever it's going to take" to restore the jobless benefits.
Meanwhile, three 2010 gubernatorial candidates - Democrats Dwight Drake and Robert Ford, and Republican Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer - urged lawmakers to return to Columbia.
Congress extended the length of benefits for the jobless in high-unemployment states like South Carolina as part of the stimulus bill passed earlier this year. Lawmakers should have tied the benefits to the state's total jobless rate - sixth-highest in the nation at 11.5 percent. Instead, the benefits were tied to the number of people getting jobless checks, which has fallen recently, causing the extended benefits to end.
House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, said he proposed an amendment to fix the problem in March as part of a bill restructuring the Employment Security Commission. But House lawmakers killed the bill - by two votes - in part due to their anger over Sanford's refusal to accept $700 million in federal stimulus money.
"I very clearly said that, 'Unless we pass this, people are going to lose benefits,'" Bingham said. "People were not listening. ... The only thing they could think of was protecting the commission, protecting the commissioners and how mad they were at Gov. Sanford."
Bingham said Security Commission leaders did not sound warnings. Outgoing commission director Ted Halley said Wednesday he did not tell lawmakers a change was needed because he did not expect the state's jobless rate to drop.
Extended federal jobless benefits are scheduled to end Dec. 31. However, Security Commission chairwoman Becky Richardson said Congress may extend the benefits again.
But Larson said that extension could cost the state. Under the current program, the federal government is picking up the cost of extended unemployment benefits. Congress could revert to its past model, which requires state businesses to pick up half the cost of the benefits, Larson said.
The state's jobless benefits trust fund is broke, which could force it to borrow more from the federal government to pay the extended benefits. The state already has borrowed more than $560 million. Those loans - and any new ones - would have to be repaid through higher jobless insurance taxes on businesses.
The issue is likely to renew calls to reform the Employment Security Commission. Gov. Mark Sanford has scheduled an unemployment roundtable for Tuesday, including discussion of reforming the commission.
"We've consistently advocated for real reform at the Employment Security Commission," Sanford spokesman Ben Fox said in a statement Friday, adding, "a lack of accountability has affected the ESC's ability to best perform its mission of putting unemployed South Carolinians to work."
For legislators, a special session to fix the unemployment index presents a thorny problem.
Returning could open the door to impeachment hearings against Sanford. Some lawmakers say Sanford abandoned his job when he took a secret five-day trip in June to Argentina and lied to staff about his location. Sanford later admitted an extramarital affair.
Bingham said the House wants to wait for a State Ethics Commission investigation to wrap up before considering impeachment. "No matter when we go back, that question is going to be raised," he added.
Fox said Sanford would not comment on whether lawmakers should return to Columbia.