As Kathleen Sebelius takes on her new role as a member of President Obama’s cabinet, she will face some significant new challenges and leave others behind for Kansas officials to handle without her.
Sebelius was confirmed late Tuesday afternoon as the new secretary of Health and Human Services and resigned as governor minutes later. HHS was the last Cabinet seat to be filled by Obama, and an outbreak of swine flu will be among the issues that demand Sebelius’ immediate attention.
Meanwhile, Kansas legislators will reconvene today to tackle a projected $328 million deficit in the fiscal 2010 budget they passed earlier this month, as well as other important issues. Instead of Sebelius, they will be dealing with new Gov. Mark Parkinson.
Although legislators and other observers note differences in style between Sebelius and Parkinson, the two reportedly have very similar policy priorities. For instance, Parkinson has worked hard on energy issues in the state and shares Sebelius’ commitment to alternative energy and her opposition to the coal-fired plants at Holcomb.
The next 20 months could be a significant opportunity for Parkinson. Because he already has said he won’t run for the governor’s office in 2010, he is free to pursue an agenda focused on what is best for the state, rather than what would get him elected.
Parkinson doesn’t have the political aspirations, or the political savvy, of his predecessor. Nor does he have the political capital. He is a former Kansas Republican Party chairman who switched parties to be Sebelius’ running mate in 2006. The switch didn’t endear him to Republicans in the Legislature, and he’s still a newcomer to the Democrats.
He could set forth a bold agenda for the next 20 months, but it’s hard to tell how much of it he could push through. Hopefully, he will be more than a placeholder in the Kansas governor’s office.
Although Sebelius was a staunch Obama supporter, she took herself out of the running for his Cabinet after several key posts were filled. However, when the withdrawal of former Sen. Tom Daschle reopened the HHS slot, both Obama and Sebelius reconsidered. Her experience as Kansas governor and insurance commissioner should be helpful as she tackles health care reform, one of Obama’s key priorities.
There is important work to be done, both in Kansas and in Washington, D.C. The state and nation should wish Parkinson and Sebelius well as they move into their important new jobs.