S.C. jobs agency overhaul advances

South Carolina's troubled jobless benefits agency would move under the governor's control with legislation gaining key House approval Wednesday.

"It was an agency in shambles and we had to fix it," House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said.

The 108-1 vote came with little debate as the House gave the overhaul legislation a second reading, with routine final approval expected today.

Legislators have had plenty to talk about and shake their heads at involving the Employment Security Commission for more than a year. Gov. Mark Sanford railed against the agency as it asked for approval for federal loans after the state's jobless benefits trust fund went broke.

Last month, state auditors found the three commissioners running the agency didn't do enough to warn legislators about that problem or advise how to fix it. An audit report said the agency lacked the accounting skills needed to report on its own finances and that the commission for much of 2009 had failed to pay income taxes withheld from benefit checks.

The House's solution is to eliminate the oversight role of the commissioners - all three former lawmakers - and to give the governor authority to fire the agency's director at will as the renamed Department of Workforce becomes part of his Cabinet. The three current commissioners lose their jobs at the end of the year.

But it's not a complete handoff of the agency's control to the governor. A panel of six legislators and three of the governor's appointees will regularly review the new Cabinet agency's operations. And that group will nominate an executive director the governor can choose whether or not to keep.

Legislators "do need to understand what is going on and what is involved so that we never find ourselves where we've currently found ourselves in not knowing what's happening inside of an agency," said state Rep. Kenny Bingham, a Cayce Republican who pushed the legislation to the House floor.

Meanwhile, the legislation cracks down on long-held practices that have caused the jobless benefits trust fund to lose money:

- Workers getting paid severance when they lose their jobs would have that money offset from unemployment benefits.

- People working for a temporary job agency couldn't get benefits unless they returned to that agency to seek other work when their assignments are completed.

- When employers fire people for good cause, including sleeping on the job, drug use or drinking, they wouldn't be able to get benefits. Current law allows benefits after a penalty period.

The lone dissenting vote came from state Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland. He said he was opposed because workers suffering from addictions shouldn't lose benefits.

"I think they should be fired, but then I don't think they should be denied benefits because they have an addiction," Howard said. It would be better to tie continued benefits to addiction counseling than run the risk of more people committing crimes to satisfy addictions, he said.

The state Senate took up its version of the overhaul bill again Wednesday. It rejected a proposal to offset jobless benefits with severance pay with a 31-13 vote.