The Palmetto Insider

The blog of the South Carolina Policy Council

Sharing the Blame for ESC’s Mismanagement

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Tuesday’s release of the Legislative Audit Council report on mismanagement and negligence by the S.C. Employment Security Commission was big news in our state. The report lays blame squarely at the commission’s feet for taking the state’s once-healthy unemployment insurance fund to nearly $750 million in federal debt and climbing. (Keep your calculator handy, because the debt is increasing by about $2 million a day.)

Now, let’s be clear about this story. The report by the LAC is news, and The Nerve was first to release a comprehensive story on the findings. But the fact that the ESC has managed to take a once solvent unemployment fund and run it into the ground is not news—at least not new news.

In 2000, the fund had a balance of $800 million. On Jan. 15, 2010, the fund was in debt to the U.S. Department of Labor in the amount of $723.7 million; on Jan. 26, the last time the Labor Department updated its web site, South Carolina’s debt had risen to $747,889,544.00.

Ten years and a swing, from being in the black to drowning in red ink, of more than $1.5 billion.

Eleven days, and another $24 million in the hole.

Thank goodness our legislature was here to alert us to this gargantuan failure.

But the timing could have been better. Perhaps a Tuesday in 2001 when the fund had fallen below its required reserves? How about a Tuesday in 2004 when the unemployment fund had fallen to about half of its required reserves? Or perhaps a Tuesday in 2008, when the recession caused an already tanking trust fund to really go into free fall.

Again, just to be clear, the Legislative Audit Council is a government watchdog working for the General Assembly, and the S.C. Employment Security Commission operates under the direction of – not the executive branch – but the General Assembly. So it should come as no surprise that the second bullet in the LAC’s condemnation of the ESC gives the legislature political cover.  Here’s what it says:

“ESC’s annual assessment reports to the General Assembly did not provide adequate information about the declining trust fund balance. Nor did ESC make recommendations to prevent the trust fund’s decline as required by … the S.C. Code of Laws.”

Our legislators are busy, what with all the hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funded special interest giveaways they’re working on. So maybe it’s understandable that they didn’t see the problem in 2000. At that time the fund reserve was just a smidge under what’s required. Neither did the legislature act in 2003, when the fund reserves had fallen from more than $800 million to around $400 million, nor in 2008 when South Carolina first had to borrow from the Department of Labor.

This is precisely why the people who write the laws and control the purse strings aren’t supposed to be the same people who enforce the laws and write the checks. The General Assembly has taken upon itself the roles of both the legislative and executive branch, in this case and many others in South Carolina.

Yes, ESC deserves blame for mismanaging of the fund and, yes, the commission needs the top-to-bottom overhaul lawmakers say is going to happen. But the “top” of the ESC is the General Assembly, and it’s disingenuous for South Carolina lawmakers to pretend they don’t share responsibility or say they were given inadequate information.

To its credit, or perhaps because the General Assembly wants to distance itself from the whole mess, the LAC’s first recommendation is to make the ESC a cabinet agency. That’s a good first step, especially since the General Assembly hasn’t done its job in managing the commission. But the long-term solution is to allow free market reforms suggested in the Policy Council’s Fast Facts on ESC posted yesterday to reduce the staggering rate – and cost – of unemployment in South Carolina.

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Written by Robert Appel

January 29, 2010 at 9:48 am

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