Hawks try to win their first wrestling title after forfeiting in state semifinals last season

The Hanahan wrestling team cheers during the Lower State championship against Loris on Wednesday night.

COLUMBIA -- State Sen. Jake Knotts on Wednesday laid blame for the failure at the Employment Security Commission and the state's soon-to-be $1 billion debt to the federal government squarely at the feet of the Legislature.

The West Columbia Republican dug up a report from January 2004 that shows one of the earliest warnings to legislators from commission Chairman Billy McLeod: The fund that pays out unemployment benefits was on the way to going broke.

"We let that sore fester and fester and fester," Knotts said. His comments came as the Senate began its debate on legislation to overhaul the troubled agency.

The fund that pays out unemployment benefits has been broke since 2008, causing the state to borrow more than $765 million from the federal government to cut checks to residents who have been laid off.

If the unemployment rate averages 12 percent this year, the debt to the federal government is projected to reach $1.28 billion by Dec. 31.

South Carolina must pay that money back with interest as well as find a way to replenish the fund going forward. Businesses almost certainly will have to put cash up to help get the state out of this mess.

The House is also working on a fix. A panel of representatives who have studied the problems at the agency sent a bill to House floor on Wednesday that could receive debate as early as next week.

Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, said he will accept his share of the responsibility for not acting on earlier warnings. He was one of a handful of legislators who sat in on the 2004 screening committee for McLeod's re-election to the commission.

The problem has now reached "catastrophic proportion," Ryberg said. The state is borrowing $2.6 million a day from the federal government, down from $3.6 million a day in January, he said.

"We missed the opportunity before," Ryberg said. "We can't miss the opportunity now."

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Ryberg said he wants the Legislature to create a direct line of accountability for the agency under the governor. The agency has suffered overall mismanagement because of a lack of controls in place, he said.

The problem became "super apparent" as unemployment rose to record highs, reaching 12.6 percent in December.

"It behooves this Senate to move forward," he said. Debate is expected to resume today.

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855 or ywenger@postandcourier.com.