October 26, 2014

House kills unemployment fraud bill

Members of the South Carolina House of Representatives killed a bill that would have increased penalties for those who fraudulently claim unemployment benefits. While Republicans said they supported the idea, they were unhappy about a late floor amendment that would have expanded jobless benefits for part-time workers.

Rep. Harry Ott (D-St. Matthews)

The House refused to give the bill third reading by an 11-94 vote Thursday, only a day after passing it 64-48.

The majority opposed an amendment that was added by voice vote Wednesday. Sponsored by State Rep. Harry Ott (D-St. Matthews), the addition to the bill would have increased the amount of benefits that part-time workers could receive.

Under current law, any outside pay a person receives that totals more than 25 percent of their jobless benefits is subtracted from the benefits they do receive. Ott’s amendment would have increased that to 50 percent.

“It almost incentivized them not to take part-time work,” Ott said of the current system, “I thought that was going about it in the wrong direction. I wanted somebody on unemployment to at least stay engaged in the workforce.”

Several Republicans said doubling that exemption would put an added strain on the unemployment fund. Rep. Kris Crawford (R-Florence) told South Carolina Radio Network it would also eliminate the urgency to get a full-time job and off government benefits.

In fact, the only reason the bill was approved in the GOP-controlled House Wednesday was because 25 Democrats joined House leadership . However, those Democrats all switched gears after a floor speech Thursday by Rep. Leon Stavrinakis (D-Charleston), who opposed the bill.

Stavrinakis said he was concerned about a new division of special investigators the legislation would create as a way to enforce the law. “If anything in government scares you as a citizen, it should be a police force and prosecutor working for the same boss,” he said. Stavrinakis said he believed there is a reason state solicitors are elected separately from sheriffs or mayors.

Ott admitted Stavrinakis’s speech won him over and he changed his vote Thursday. Even the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bill Sandifer (R-Seneca), voted against it. He was not able to be reached Thursday.

Republicans will likely try again with different legislation. Sandifer has previously said the state needs tougher penalties against those who defraud it through jobless benefits. He points out the current fine is $20-$100– much less than a person could earn in benefits each week.

“That does not deter anybody from fraudulently making claims,” he said. Instead, his  bill had proposed a $1,000 fine and/or 30 days in jail after a first offense.

A similar bill is currently working its way through the state Senate.