Statehouse Live: Brownback defends closure of Lawrence SRS office; local lawmaker says decision wasn’t data driven

Gov. Sam Brownback provides a progress report on his first six months in office Wednesday, July 6, 2011, at the Statehouse in Topeka. Brownback was joined by Cabinet secretaries and executive directors of state agencies and programs.

? Gov. Sam Brownback on Wednesday said Lawrence’s location was a key factor in his administration’s decision to shut down the Lawrence office of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.

“Lawrence, in particular, has a proximity to several major SRS offices on four-lane roads,” Brownback said.

House Democratic Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence said Brownback’s reasoning was off-base.

“I’m not sure he has a very good understanding of the kind of clientele the local SRS office has,” Davis said. “Not a lot of them have access to transportation that can go to Topeka, Ottawa or Kansas City.”

SRS Secretary Robert Siedlecki Jr. added that another major reason was that closing the Lawrence SRS office would produce significant savings — $300,000 — in the agency’s attempt to cut $1 million in administrative costs that was ordered by the Legislature.

“We definitely had to make some tough choices,” Siedlecki said.

Again, Davis disagreed with Siedlecki. Davis said he believes the closure of the Lawrence office wasn’t “data driven.” And while Siedlecki says the cuts were needed to satisfy a legislative mandate, Davis said, “I didn’t see SRS vigorously opposing potential cuts in front of the Legislature. I generally viewed their posture as being accepting of additional cuts.”

SRS changes

On Friday, SRS announced it was restructuring its offices by merging six regions into four and closing nine offices, in an effort to comply with a legislative mandate to cut costs.

The Lawrence office was by far the largest on the closure list. Public outcry over the decision has been intense from social service advocates and law enforcement officials who say it will diminish access to needed SRS services. A meeting is being set up by local leaders for next week in Lawrence on the issue.

SRS provides a variety of services for low-income children and families and people with disabilities. SRS officials have said that the office’s 87 employees would be reassigned to other offices.

During a Statehouse news conference Wednesday that Brownback called to highlight his first six months in office, the governor, flanked by nearly two dozen cabinet secretaries and other top administration officials, was asked about plans to close the SRS office in Lawrence.

Brownback said he hoped SRS clients would be able to access services on the Internet. He said if the Lawrence office hadn’t been closed, four or five others would have had to take its place on the closure list.

Siedlecki also said state Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, asked if Siedlecki could send a couple of SRS employees to Lawrence a couple of days per week if free office space could be made available. Siedlecki said he would consider that.

Brownback’s agenda

Brownback, a Republican who took office in January, said that the state has made economic progress in the past six months and was on the right track after several years of recession.

But questions at the news conference focused on the possibility of more budget cuts to Medicaid, the state-federally funded health insurance program that serves mostly low-income children, pregnant women, elderly people and people with disabilities.

Brownback said that he is not ruling out a cut to payments to health care providers under Medicaid, but that he was waiting to see what recommendations would come from a series of meetings on Medicaid.

Brownback was also asked about his anti-abortion agenda — four bills that took effect July 1 increased regulations on abortion. Two of those bills are tied up in court challenges.

While supportive of the measures, Brownback said the abortion issue hasn’t deflected his attention from trying to improve the state’s economy.

“It hasn’t taken my eye off the ball,” he said.

The governor said his administration has created 3,163 jobs since taking office, and the state budget is improving.

“Our unemployment rate is ticking down, and our state revenues are growing,” he said.

Democrats disputed the claim, saying most of the job gains cited by Brownback had been in the works before he took office.

Instead they pointed to Brownback’s record cuts to public schools, killing the Kansas Arts Commission, and laying off hundreds of state employees.

“Brownback needs to stay focused on jobs and the economy instead of promoting an extreme, partisan agenda,” said Kansas Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon.