Topeka Kansas will abolish its Parole Board and make other changes in state government designed to trim spending because the Legislature has allowed six executive reorganization orders from Gov. Sam Brownback to stand.
Legislators have until today to block the last of Brownback’s reorganization orders, but they’re taking their annual spring break and don’t reconvene until April 27. The governor’s plans take effect July 1, and his administration expects them to reduce spending by $4.7 million annually.
The Parole Board’s job of deciding which inmates can be released early from prison will be transferred to a Department of Corrections panel. An independent health policy agency will become part of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and the Department of Agriculture will absorb two small agencies.
The savings represent a tiny fraction of the state’s $14 billion annual budget, but Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said they’re significant steps toward “getting our financial house in order.”
“It’s a great first step in restructuring our government,” she said.
Some legislators want to keep the Parole Board, and the Senate came close to rejecting Brownback’s plan for abolishing it. And after arts advocates rallied, senators rejected an order from Brownback to eliminate the Kansas Arts Commission as a government agency and replace it with a private, nonprofit foundation.
But other changes proposed by the GOP governor didn’t inspire strong opposition, even his plan to end the Kansas Health Policy Authority’s independent status and put it under KDHE. Republicans hold majorities of 32-8 in the Senate and 92-33 in the House.
“The Legislature is inclined to give a new governor a certain amount of leeway in terms of structuring his administration,” said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat.
The Kansas Constitution allows the governor to issue orders reorganizing executive branch agencies during the first 30 days of each legislative session, and legislators have an additional 60 days to consider them. Rejection by one chamber kills a reorganization order.
One Brownback order will move the state’s Animal Health Department and Conservation Commission into the Department of Agriculture, along with the Department of Commerce’s agriculture marketing program.
Other orders will transfer the Department of Commerce’s tourism division to the Department of Wildlife and Parks and the state Commission on Disability Concerns, from the Department of Commerce to the governor’s office. Also, Kansas Inc., an independent economic development research agency, will be abolished and its duties assumed by the Department of Administration.
The Arts Commission order, designed to save $575,000 annually, was the least popular Brownback proposal. But the governor already has formed the nonprofit foundation, and legislators expect him to veto any state funds for the Arts Commission — accomplishing his goal, despite senators’ action.
The Senate voted 20-19 to reject Brownback’s order on the Parole Board, but opponents of the plan needed 21 votes in the 40-member chamber.
Critics contend the Department of Corrections has an inherent conflict of interest in deciding who gets paroled.
They worry the department will have an incentive to release inmates when prisons get close to capacity, as they are now.
“I still think there is a need for an independent body making those decisions,” Davis said.
But other legislators are skeptical that at-capacity prisons will result in a raft of paroles. House Speaker Mike O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican who supports the change, notes that the corrections secretary already has some authority to release inmates early when faced with crowding.
O’Neal also contends that a department panel is more likely to consider whether an inmate who’s up for parole has served as much or more time as other ex-inmates who’ve committed the same crime.
The change for the Health Policy Authority is significant because a GOP-controlled Legislature created the agency in 2005 to administer Medicaid and other health programs and to make policy recommendations to lawmakers.
Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius pushed to have the agency within the executive branch, but many Republican insisted on setting up an agency governed by an independent board.
Some Republicans now acknowledge the setup didn’t work as they intended. Conservatives repeatedly chafed when the authority proposed plans to increase state spending on health services.
“The Health Policy Authority began mission creep almost immediately,” O’Neal said. “It really got to the point where it was quite aggravating.”