(Update: Haley's comment that half of Savannah River Site job applicants tested positive for drugs is untrue, according to this followup story from The Huffington Post).
Gov. Nikki Haley said Thursday she wants to institute drug testing for people who apply for state unemployment benefits.
"I so want drug testing," Haley told a receptive, hometown gathering of Rotarians at a breakfast reception held at the Country Club of Lexington. "It's something I've been wanting since the first day I walked into office."
However, Haley stopped short of proposing any such testing for those who receive welfare benefits, including those on food stamps.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott recently signed into law a measure that requires welfare recipients to pass annual drug screens. However, early indications are that the measure is unlikely to save that cash-strapped state any money, and is highly vulnerable to costly lawsuits on constitutional grounds, analyses show.
Haley's call for drug-testing is not entirely new. She made national headlines last year when she called for mandatory testing while running for governor.
But now her office is actively investigating the idea and will push to implement it if it's possible, she said.
"We have to pull the numbers," she told reporters after her speech. "We have to make sure this works. We have to see what the return is on it. And, we have to see federally and legally if we can do it."
If drug testing is ultimately instituted, it would be another step in Haley's efforts to reform the state's unemployment system. Faced with an unemployment insurance debt load of nearly $1 billion, South Carolina has stopped accepting federal unemployment insurance loans, no longer allows benefits to seasonal workers, and has cut the duration of unemployment benefits from 26 to 20 weeks.
With a drug testing measure, Haley said, the state could save further money and ultimately lighten the unemployment-tax load on businesses, as well as create more accountability among beneficiaries and provide more incentive to seek work.
The Legislature already is considering a drug-testing measure that would cut off benefits if an applicant failed a potential employer's drug screening test.
Haley said she was told that half the people who applied this year for hundreds of positions at the Savannah River Site (SRS) near Aiken tested positive for drugs.
While Lexington Rotarians seemed to have no problem with Haley's idea, advocates for the poor and unemployed said they consider it foolish and misdirected.
"That is a terrible use of resources when we should be putting any of our state resources into helping people who have been devastated because of the lack of jobs," Sue Berkowitz, executive director of the advocacy group South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, told the Associated Press. "The average South Carolinian should be wondering what South Carolina leaders are thinking about us as people."
In return for more stringent requirements for assistance, Haley said the state must also do its part by focusing on job training. Faced with record high unemployment, Haley said enhanced workforce training is the key to reversing the state's jobless rate, which is among the highest in the country.
Of those SRS applicants who had clean drug screens, Haley noted in her speech, "half of them could not even read or write well enough" to get jobs at the nuclear facility.
"That's the problem we face in South Carolina," she said. "We don't have an unemployment problem. We have an education and poverty problem."
"So what you're going to see us doing in this next year is a full-force training program," she promised. "We are going to do everything we need to get these people back to work. Everything we need to get them trained."
Haley said she would push to start a program by next year that will provide incentives for people seeking unemployment benefits to upgrade their skills. Details are still being worked out on the costs and how the incentives would work, she said.
"I'm watching all my colleagues in other states struggle, " she said. "I'm not going to be like that. We're not going to be like Washington. We are going to create a business plan. We're going to know what we want South Carolina to look like … years from now.
"The unemployment reform we did last year is just the first step," she said.
The state will continue to look at ways to reduce benefits and force aid recipients into training, she said, "because we've got to make it more comfortable to get out and work than it is to sit at home."
Haley told the crowd she was proud of the fact that 11,491 new jobs have been announced since she came into office in January, and that the state has scored $1.7 billion in new investments. And a lot of those new jobs "are not just in Charleston, Columbia and Greenville," she said, but in more rural areas of the state hit hardest by joblessness.
However, jobs -- or the lack of them -- remain a particular problem in South Carolina, which has a 10.9 percent unemployment rate. The state ties Michigan for the third-highest rate in the nation, with only Nevada and California faring worse.
"I'm killing myself to bring jobs to this state," Haley said. However,the root problems behind the state's rampant joblessness are due to a confluence of factors rarely -- if ever -- seen.
"You have college students who have now entered the workforce that need jobs and don't have them. We have people who have been let go in their mid-50s who suddenly are getting back into the work force and having to figure out what they're going to do because they can't work in that same industry," Haley said.
"And more than anything, we also have people who thought they had retired — thought that they had enough money to live off of — and no longer have it," she added. "So they are now having to get back into the work force."
But Lexington County, she said, is one of the state's bright spots. While unemployment in the county stood at 8.6 percent in July, it still has the lowest jobless rate among the state's 46 counties.
"Your biggest issue here is [handling] growth," she said. "What a great problem to have."