In most political spats, truth's in middle

Gov. Mark Sanford, in announcing Wednesday that he would request a federal unemployment-benefits loan, made New Year's Eve a little less frantic for the state's 77,000 jobless residents. Of course, he made them squirm for quite a while, and some in the Ge

Most of the time when the governor gets into a spat with the Legislature or some state agency, the only casualties are a few egos and some trees — the ones sacrificed so newspapers around the state can print these epic Road Runner vs. Coyote battles.

But this week, a few innocent bystanders almost became collateral damage.

You know, the people who through no fault of their own lost work because their businesses became unprofitable and the owners closed the doors.

The ones who got the pink slip when the textile mills sent their work overseas because that $8 an hour they were paying South Carolinians was just way too expensive.

The folks who make up housekeeping staffs at hotels, until the tourists stop coming. Or the men and women at a steel mill in Georgetown, who get laid off for a month of more because the auto industry goes belly up.

These people didn't do anything wrong, except perhaps vote.

For the moment, they won't have to suffer; on Wednesday Gov. Mark Sanford announced that he would apply for a federal unemployment-benefits loan so the checks will keep flowing.

For now.

It's a nice last-minute save, but folks in the General Assembly say that doesn't make up for the weeks of tension and worries inflicted on average folks.

Those people still spent most of the holidays wondering if they were going to have to end up in a shelter.

And even for a bunch of weathered politicians, that was too much.

"If we have a problem, we'll fix it," Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell says. "Why make these people worry about whether or not they are going to get benefits?"

"I do believe it is totally, totally inappropriate to use the ESC (Employment Security Commission) as a wedge in these philosophical arguments," state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter says. "It's unfair to the people."

Members of Sanford's party are grumbling, a few privately use the word "grand-standing."

Do you shut down the roads because there are problems at the highway department? Do you shut down the state Capitol because elected leaders fail to balance the budget?

Apparently not.

Are there problems at the Employment Security Commission? Maybe.

Folks have complained that the checks are late, and the governor says they don't spend their money the way he would.

But despite Sanford's charge of "mismanagement," the jury is out on that one.

The governor claims the Employment Security folks have an "utter disdain for accountability" because they won't go along with a Legislative Audit Council report. But the agency has said it would welcome a federal audit.

You say tomato, they say politics. Remember, when the two sides take such opposite tracks, the truth is usually somewhere in the middle.

Sanford says the "agency has watched this fund run out over six years and had done nothing to prevent it." Well, not exactly.

For the past six years, the ESC has warned lawmakers about this, but no one wanted to do anything about it.

Whether Sanford knew is open to debate. But you can put at least part of the blame on the Legislature.

Nobody wants to waste money on a "what if" — as in, "What if the economy collapses and we run out of unemployment money?"

That's the way it works at the Statehouse: Put out fires and ignore all the hard decisions. Special-needs kids, education; nothing is ever a priority until the end is nigh.

Now they've got this to wrestle with. At this point, an investigation by the Legislative Audit Council is inevitable. For more than two decades, an LAC report has been the Holy Grail in state government, the watchdog agency that lawmakers sic on all their favorite targets.

Those guys are good, but good work takes time. That was another thing that hacked off some lawmakers: What were the unemployed supposed to do for four or five months while LAC investigated?

As usual, there is more than meets the eye here. Lawmakers say Sanford has had it in for the ESC for years, vetoing its capital projects and taking the Workforce Investment Act programs from ESC and giving them to his favorite son, the Department of Commerce.

Maybe he has, and maybe he's had good reason. An audit will tell the tale, because the LAC is pretty thorough.

But as a result of all of this, Sanford may get a two-for-one special on Legislative Audit Council reports. Lawmakers may ask for a review of Commerce's books too, just so they can find out where all the new jobs are.