The race between Nikki Haley, the Republican nominee for governor, and rival Democratic candidate Vincent Sheheen turned into a fight Tuesday.
The two went after each other as a new poll indicated the race could be tightening. Haley said Tuesday that the state's unemployed should be tested for drug use before they receive benefits. She said the screenings should be part of continued reform at the state Department of Employment and Workforce. The state's unemployment rate is 11 percent.
Sheheen said before a speaking event in Myrtle Beach on Tuesday that he thinks "anyone who is terminated from their work because of drug use shouldn't receive unemployment benefits.
"I also think that if Representative Haley wants to call for personal responsibility, I'm all for it, but the first thing I'm going to require is that she agree that candidates for public office have to pay their taxes because if they're not going to do that, if she's not going to do that, then we can't expect to point the finger at others," said Sheheen, for whom a fundraising reception was held Tuesday night at the Dunes Golf & Beach Club in Myrtle Beach.
"I think that the real problem with the unemployment system in South Carolina is that we don't have enough jobs, and Representative Haley continues to duck that issue on purpose and try to change the subject," Sheheen said.
As for the cost involved with requiring drug tests, Haley's campaign spokesman Rob Godfrey said: "The money we save by not giving benefits to those who fail drug tests will easily cover the costs of the tests."
All of this occurred against the backdrop of a poll that showed Haley had the backing of 45 percent of 634 active and registered South Carolina voters surveyed Sept. 30 by Crantford and Associates. Forty-one percent said they would vote for Sheheen. Thirteen percent were undecided. The poll's margin of error is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
Whether or not the gap is narrowing, Haley came out swinging Tuesday at a news conference outside the state Department of Employment and Workforce, where she was flanked by Republican leaders of the state House. She said Sheheen ignored a clear warning in April 2008 that the state's trust fund that pays out unemployment benefits was going broke -- and fast.
The workforce agency, formerly known as the Employment Security Commission, ran out of money and the state has had to borrow roughly $1 billion to pay out benefits. A law, passed earlier this year, requires businesses to pay new rates to pay off the federal debt and replenish the fund going forward. The new rates on businesses will go into effect in January. The unemployment benefits account is funded by annual taxes businesses pay on each worker on the payroll.
The debt, however, is projected to grow to $2 billion before the state can afford to pay the benefits without federal loans.
Businesses eventually will be charged between zero and about $900 for each employee, depending on the frequency the business lays off workers. The Senate had a rigorous debate in February on a proposal to randomly test the unemployed for drugs before approving benefits. But ultimately the Senate rejected the idea, in part on the grounds that employers generally screen for drugs before they hire workers and because people who are fired for gross misconduct, such as for drug use on the job, are denied benefits.
Haley said that despite the legislative rejection, she would still push for such a requirement as governor.
Haley also slammed Sheheen, for ignoring a warning in April 2008 from a former commissioner on the Employment Security Commission who alerted lawmakers that the trust fund was going broke.
Then-commissioner Billy McLeod's testimony before a panel of House members and senators was a "red flag," Haley said.
"Senator Sheheen sat at that table and he did absolutely nothing about it," she said.
However, Sheheen told The Post and Courier in late January that the McLeod testimony included an understanding that the fund was going broke because the unemployment rate was spiking.
The Sun News staff writer Janelle Frost and The (Charleston) Post & Courier contributed to this report