Sanford will select leader for troubled jobless agency

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COLUMBIA --- More than a year of criticism about a poorly run Employment Security Commission is ending with Gov. Mark Sanford deciding who should turn around the agency.

Sanford will sign a bill today that creates a new Workforce Department that's part of his Cabinet. Spokesman Ben Fox said Monday the governor is interviewing people to lead the department and should have a decision within a couple of weeks.

The legislation will bring a level of accountability not seen at the commission, Fox said.

In late 2008, the first public hints of problems became known as the commission asked Sanford to sign off on loans to cover payments of jobless benefits checks. Audits since then show the agency didn't do enough to head off the need to borrow. It lacked accounting skills and faced penalties for collecting but not paying income taxes on benefits.

Through last week, the commission had borrowed $838 million to cover benefits.

Lawmakers rushed legislation this year to reduce the role of the three-member commission that oversaw the agency's operations and instead allow the governor's appointee to run it. That can't happen soon enough for some.

"I hope he has somebody in mind because we don't have the luxury of any delays," said Sen. Greg Ryberg, the Aiken Republican who pushed the legislation through the Senate.

"I think we need a game changer over there," said Senate President Pro Glenn McConnell. "It's going to be a tall order."

After sending the bill to Sanford's desk last week, House Speaker Bobby Harrell said the governor's appointee has a lot of work to do and needs to do it as quickly as possible.

"It needs to be the best person possible to fix the massive problems that they have over there, and I'll leave that to the governor to figure out who that ought to be," Harrell said.

Fox said candidates have stepped forward or have been recommended by others and "the list is being narrowed."

Harrell and McConnell, both Charleston Republicans, will each appoint three members to a panel that will review the appointee's qualifications. The governor will name that panel's three other members.

That oversight is needed "to be sure this person has the knowledge, the ability and -- above all -- the determination to make the changes," McConnell said.

Sanford's pick will serve through March 2011. Sanford's successor will then chose from among three choices to run the agency approved by the nine-member panel, including people the governor could recommend.

That shows there is no clean hand-off of the responsibility for overseeing the agency to the governor, notes Jon Pierce, a senior fellow at the University of South Carolina's Institute of Public Service and Policy Research.

"If anything, the General Assembly is increasing its influence over the agency," he said.

A top challenge for the agency and its new director will be "really trying to figure out who their boss is," Pierce said.

Fox said Sanford's selection, who must be voted on by the Senate, is just one of the first steps of the overhaul.


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