Topeka Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's top social services appointee easily won Kansas Senate confirmation Wednesday as a bipartisan majority brushed aside strong criticism from the chamber's top Democrat.
The vote was 34-1 on Social and Rehabilitation Services Secretary Rob Siedlecki's appointment and allows him to continue serving in the Cabinet position he's held since January, when Brownback took office.
Republicans hold a 32-8 majority in the Senate. As a group, they didn't appear to have serious misgivings about Siedlecki's appointment when Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, questioned Siedlecki's fitness for the job. Half the Democrats also voted for the SRS secretary.
Hensley has alleged that Siedlecki intends to ignore the Legislature's wishes on the budget to finance initiatives he and Brownback favor. Siedlecki insists that's not true and Brownback stands by him.
"Thirty-five years of instinct — you know, being in this process — tell me that this guy is incapable of being able to run an agency of this size, and I quite frankly will just wait to see what kind of performance he has," said Hensley, the Legislature's longest-serving member. "I think this guy is in over his head."
The governor said Siedlecki is fully qualified, having served as a high-ranking Florida Department of Health official and in the U.S. Justice and Health and Human Services departments under Republican President George W. Bush.
The SRS secretary watched the vote in the Senate and thanked members afterward for their support. He said that after he closes on a home in the Topeka area, he'll invite local legislators to his first barbecue — including Hensley, who will represent him in the Senate.
"I definitely am excited and happy that the Senate looked through everything out there and decided to confirm me, and I look forward to working with them," he said.
SRS secretary is a key appointment for any governor. The total budget for the department and its hospitals for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled is about $1.8 billion, and they have about 5,900 employees. The agency also deals with many of the state's most vulnerable residents.
Governors of either major party rarely have trouble getting their Cabinet appointees confirmed, and four of the Senate's eight Democrats voted for Siedlecki. They joined 30 of the 32 Republicans.
"Rob brings a unique combination of working with the same federal programs that SRS implements in our state and supervising a large staff and budget," Brownback said in a statement. "He will work to improve the delivery of our health services programs to our state's most vulnerable in a cost effective way."
Most often, senators show they oppose an appointment or have reservations by passing when the confirmation vote occurs. On Siedlecki's appointment, three Democrats and one Republican passed; one GOP senator was absent.
Hensley's allegations about Siedlecki's intentions stem from a March 17 meeting between Siedlecki and about 30 officials from the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas.
After that session, one participant emailed another senator, quoting the Siedlecki as saying that when the SRS budget is approved, he would reallocate the money for "initiatives that were of interest to him," ignoring legislators' wishes. Siedlecki said it didn't happen.
The email specifically mentioned faith-based initiatives, which Siedlecki said are in "a conceptual stage" as he and his staff gather ideas about how to involve faith-based groups in SRS programs. But Hensley said the administration's plans for such initiatives are not a factor in his criticism.
On March 22, Michael Hammond, the mental health group's executive director, said in a letter that the email writer misunderstood the secretary and didn't speak for the group. In the same letter, Hammond said the group endorsed Siedlecki's confirmation.