Politics & Government

House panel OKs jobless agency changes

A House panel has approved a list of changes at the embattled Employment Security Commission designed to shore up South Carolina's jobless fund while lawmakers debate long-term changes.

The changes would eliminate benefits to those fired for drug abuse, fighting or other cause, restrict businesses from filing jobless claims for employees and require more review of who receives benefits and how agency commissioners award those benefits.

The agency can make all the changes requested by lawmakers Tuesday. Others, such as changing the commission structure or unemployment tax rates, will require changes to state law.

Lawmakers are expected to make reforming the state employment agency one of the top items when the legislative session resumes in Columbia next week. Last year, a bill giving the governor more authority over the agency stalled in the House of Representatives.

Lawmakers wanted to "get the message out to the commission what we expect from them," said Rep. Annette Young, R-Dorchester.

South Carolina is among 25 states that have borrowed a total of $24 billion from the federal government to pay jobless benefits, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics. As many as 40 states could exhaust their jobless benefits by the end of 2010. South Carolina could have to repay the more than $600 million borrowed so far, possibly by raising taxes on businesses.

Gov. Mark Sanford and lawmakers have argued mismanagement at the agency meant unemployment funds were depleted before the worst of the recession hit the state.

Interim ESC director Samuel Foster said the agency had worked with lawmakers on some of the items on the list, but had yet to discuss others with the three-member commission. Foster declined to comment on the changes.