COLUMBIA — A bill giving Gov. Mark Sanford control of the agency that handles jobless claims advanced with unanimous support Wednesday from a subcommittee amid questions from legislators on how the measure would help put workers back to work.
Apart from renaming the Employment Security Commission the Workforce Department and making it a part of Sanford's cabinet, the bill's only other substantial aim is to eventually take unemployment benefit appeals out of the hands of the commission's three members and put them before administrative law judges.
The bill sailed out of a Senate Labor, Commerce and Industry subcommittee with Lewis Gossett, president of the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance, telling the panel the commission was loosely interpreting laws that disqualify people for benefits and spending too much time making sure the unemployed got checks instead of trying to put them to work.
Manufacturers have long complained about having job vacancies but not enough skilled workers to fill them. Gossett said the agency hasn't done enough to use federal cash for programs to train them.
That problem peaked last summer as the commission mailed unemployed workers notices they might qualify for a federal extension of jobless benefits beyond the 26-week limit.
"You know, they shouldn't have been doing that," Gossett said. "They should be telling people about jobs that are available in South Carolina and working with folks to do that. It was almost as if they were competing against us for the employee — the employee's time."
The bill, introduced Tuesday afternoon by committee chairman Sen. Greg Ryberg, found itself on an unusually fast track with Wednesday's hearing. Only Gossett and a South Carolina Chamber of Commerce representative showed up to support it. Ryberg, who ran the hearing, said there was enough notice for opponents to weigh in and said he told the Employment Security Commission of the hearing.
"We need to bear in mind that South Carolina owes its unemployed citizens more than just a check, which of course runs out at some point. We owe them our best efforts to find them a new job," Ryberg said.
But even Ryberg's committee members and bill co-sponsors were skeptical that the bill would do anything to solve the issues at the crux of current problems: the nation's third highest jobless rate and a trust fund for benefits that went broke and now operates mostly with the help of federal loans.
Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia, was skeptical, noting legislators aren't even aware of the scope of those problems: "All of those issues, we need to know what they are and how we're going to solve those by recreating or reforming this commission."
"We want to see what the problems are," said Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, a Charleston Republican who co-sponsored the bill. "It's got to be more than rearranging deck chairs. If there are problems, we need to fix problems. This shouldn't be a question of who's in charge. ... And unless they can put some depth in that, they're liable to have some problems with the bill."
But Ryberg said those issues could be resolved later. Amendments to the bill created a study committee to address some of Gossett's concerns and barred the governor from tapping a legislator to run the agency.
Sanford called the bill a step toward accountability.
"Anytime you've got the executive director reporting to the governor, that's a very different level of accountability. ... Yeah, we would be pleased to see that legislation go through," Sanford said.