Originally created 07/09/98

Parties prepare for labor commissioner primaries



Leading to the July 21 primary for Georgia labor commissioner, the Democrats debate job-training strategies while the Republicans differ over collection of the state unemployment tax.

There are three Republicans and three Democrats vying for the $89,537-a-year position that oversees the Georgia Labor Department - the agency that monitors Georgia's unemployment, pays unemployment benefits to laid-off workers, and administers about $51 million a year in job training programs.

The labor commissioner's seat was vacated in January when Democrat David Poythress resigned to run for governor. He was replaced by longtime Deputy Commissioner Marti Fullerton, who announced she would not seek election.

The Democratic contenders are emphasizing their experience in job training and welfare reform. They are state Sen. Steve Henson of Stone Mountain; Michael Thurmond of Athens, former director of the state Division of Family and Children's Services; and Richard McGee of Waycross, a former deputy labor commissioner.

Mr. Henson, touting his experience with welfare reform, emphasized the importance of job training in relieving work-force shortages.

"My main issue will be to ensure the success of welfare reform, to improve job-training funding," he said. "A lot of jobs are going unfilled because they don't have the workers to fill them."

He said he would improve the Labor Department's relationship with adult technical education programs and pursue economic development by luring new business to Georgia.

Mr. Thurmond, who directed the 9,000-employee state welfare agency, is a graduate of Augusta's Paine College and the University of South Carolina School of Law. In 1986, he was the first black elected to the State House from Clarke County since Reconstruction. As state welfare chief, he played a key role in the "Work First" program that steered recipients into job programs.

He said the main issue is how to deal with labor shortages. He wants to find ways to motivate discouraged workers to seek employment and unskilled workers to get technical education.

"Georgia needs a comprehensive, statewide work-force development plan," Mr. Thurmond said. "We need to begin to develop a world-class work force to supply the needs of employers."

Mr. McGee, making his first run for elected office, emphasized his 13 years at the Labor Department, including time as an employer interviewer and four years as deputy commissioner. He said he has the job-training experience to get former welfare recipients jobs.

Businesses can't expand if they don't have skilled workers to fill jobs, Mr. McGee said. To change that, he said he would focus on education and encourage the chronically unemployed -- who aren't included in unemployment statistics -- to seek jobs.

Republican candidates disagree on whether a temporary halt to Georgia's $320 million unemployment tax would be effective. The GOP contenders are retired consultant John Frank Collins of Stone Mountain; Jeb Fuller, a Marietta real-estate manager; and Rick Millsaps, president of a window-manufacturing company in Lilburn.

Mr. Collins, who ran unsuccessfully eight times for the Georgia Public Service Commission, is pushing for a three-year moratorium on collecting the unemployment tax, which pays for unemployment benefits for laid-off workers.

Businesses could use that money as reinvestment or to employ more workers, he said. A booming economy and low unemployment have helped Georgia accumulate $1.89 billion in unemployment reserves, he noted.

State labor officials fear that suspending the unemployment tax would endanger a hefty federal tax break that saved Georgia businesses about $800 million last year, Labor Department spokesman Sam Hall said. That's $480 million more than businesses paid in state unemployment taxes.

A condition of the federal credit is that businesses pay state unemployment taxes, Mr. Hall said.

Mr. Millsaps, who worked in the Labor Department for 10 years, said he favors collecting the tax but cutting it.

"It is irresponsible to continue to tax the business people of Georgia with a reserve on hand sufficient to fund anticipated unemployment payments years into the future," he said.

A three-year moratorium is unrealistic, said Mr. Millsaps, who contends the Labor Department needs to be more aggressive.

"Two main functions of the department needing drastic improvement are finding jobs for people and finding people for businesses which need workers," he said.

Mr. Fuller is concerned because some areas of Georgia are experiencing a labor shortage. He wants to encourage businesses to move from cities with few workers to areas with higher unemployment. He would launch an economic development and education effort to let businesses know about areas where workers are readily available.