The eye-popping number of more than $400 million in unemployment checks sent to people not eligible for them is going to set off a political firestorm.
But before engaging in legislative witch hunts against bureaucrats, legislators ought to point fingers at themselves.
The Workforce Commission, formerly the Department of Labor, runs unemployment benefit programs, and two things exploded in 2020: joblessness, and federal benefits added.
When literally hundreds of thousands of people were clamoring for benefits, the old computers and administrative systems of the commission and the limited staff groaned under the strain.
Add to that the slew of federal benefits added by Congress, each with different rules, and it was a recipe for administrative disaster.
Now, with the battle sounds of the pandemic fading into the distance, auditors are going over the field to assess the damage. The Legislative Auditor’s Office said the $405.3 million in unemployment benefits paid to those believed to be ineligible is a low number, not a high one.
The Workforce Commission said it’s continuing to try to track down and report to prosecutors the cases of fraud that in the crisis racked the system. They are also changing things like verification of wages — obviously, necessary for computing an unemployment check — that broke down under the strain or were changed abruptly in each new round of federal aid.
If it is any consolation to a beleaguered agency, similar problems have happened across the nation.
“Over the past year, too many states have failed that (administrative) test, their systems overwhelmed both by the sheer volume of applications and the challenges created by adding new types of benefits and qualifications,” reported Governing magazine.
Unemployment compensation is a mixed federal-state program. In Louisiana, rather typically, legislators don’t pay much attention to it because the costs of administration fall to the feds.
Why spend millions to upgrade an ancient computer system, so long as it’s puttering along issuing a thousand UC checks a week?
When disaster strikes, though, a failure to pay attention on legislators’ part will be blamed on the bureaucrats, a convenient target.
Let’s get real. One of the most over-used phrases is running government like a business. Even business owners in the Legislature — or, for that matter, the federal Congress — are part-time lawmakers and full-time political animals. They neglect basics like expensive computer upgrades because there is no political gain in it.
With this experience still with us, as unemployment is stubbornly high, will the Louisiana Legislature put some of the federal aid it gets over the next two years to modernize administrative systems, and not just in the UC program?
Let the witchhunt begin. But it ought to start with legislators focused on their own political interests rather than the long-term interests of the state.