Barbs obscuring key question

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford

COLUMBIA — Should the nearly 250,000 unemployed workers in South Carolina be cut loose to fend for themselves or should the state borrow an additional $20 million next month to put their checks in the mail?

That is the debate now between Gov. Mark Sanford and key legislators, but the answer is getting lost in the bickering and buried under an exchange of accusatory letters.

Sanford began the exchange earlier this month by posing a question to Senate leader Glenn McConnell and House Speaker Bobby Harrell: Should he keep signing for federal loans to pay unemployed workers?

The state is projected to borrow $1 billion by the end of the year because the account that would otherwise cover the cost is broke. Without the loans, jobless benefits would be cut off unless the state finds another way to fund the account.

Sanford said he still is waiting for an answer.

"I've seen many times in the Senate your extraordinary ability to divert attention from a given question while skillfully directing sharp rhetoric at those who disagree with you — and in this case, to be blunt, you skillfully dodged the question I asked,"

in this case, to be blunt, you skillfully dodged the question I asked," Sanford wrote in a letter to McConnell dated Friday.

He was responding to a letter McConnell wrote Thursday in reply to Sanford's original May 6 letter.

In his letter, McConnell, R-Charleston, said the governor is more interested in developing a reputation as a reformer than attempting to solve the problems facing South Carolina. McConnell also wrote that the rising unemployment rate is one of the most critical issues that the state must address.

The governor has been urging the Legislature to give the executive branch control of the Employment Security Commission, which divvies out the unemployment benefits.

Sanford wrote in his original letter that the Legislature's failure to make that reform in a timely manner inevitably will lead to tax increases on South Carolina employers.

McConnell said in an interview last week that giving Sanford control of the agency is not going to take care of the solvency issue. He was not available for comment Monday.

"It is an insurance account and there are people out there drawing the benefits," McConnell said. "They're eligible for it because they've lost their jobs. Whether he has control doesn't change that dynamic."

A review of the Employment Security Commission is underway by the Legislative Audit Council. If the audit turns up problems with the way the unemployment benefits account is managed, McConnell said the Legislature will take needed action.

Harrell, R-Charleston, said Monday that he and McConnell are looking to the governor for leadership on this issue. Harrell said that he and McConnell tried to pass legislation to give the governor control of the unemployment agency, but the House and Senate did not have the votes to approve the bill.

"The governor is supposed to be the leader of the state," Harrell said. "He is supposed to be telling us how we deal with the problem right now," explaining the options and making recommendations.

Sanford's press secretary Joel Sawyer said that Harrell is being coy. He pointed to statements that Harrell and McConnell made in December to urge Sanford to request a loan so benefits weren't cut off to the 70,000 unemployed workers at that time. Since then, the unemployment rate has jumped from 8.8 percent to 11.4 percent.

Sawyer said the governor has laid out a plan, including his call to use federal stimulus money designated for South Carolina to begin paying off debt. Restructuring would also be part of a solution, he said.

"Clearly under the old structure, there was no accountability as they watched the unemployment trust fund bleed down to nothing," Sawyer said.

Still, they agree the question remains: What is the state going to do next to pay benefits for unemployed workers?