Topeka Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has outlined a plan to dramatically reduce the size of government through attrition by not replacing baby-boom generation workers who retire, an idea that his critics say could endanger critical services for children and the elderly.
In an article written for Breitbart News and published on its website Aug. 24, Kobach, who is also a leading candidate for governor in the 2018 election, said the mass retirement of baby boomers presents a unique opportunity to downsize government.
"The size of government can be dramatically reduced simply by making the decision not to fill every vacancy," Kobach wrote in the article. "And it doesn’t take an act of Congress to do it. All it takes is political will in the executive branch not to fill vacancies. The only exceptions should be law enforcement agencies and the military."
Kobach is a frequent contributor to Breitbart, a website that one of its leaders, and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has referred to as a platform for the so-called "alt-right," an offshoot of conservatism that is often characterized as a white nationalist movement.
In the article, Kobach does not specifically say he would adopt such an attrition plan if he were elected governor. But he does say he used attrition to reduce the size of the secretary of state's office.
"Shortly after I became Kansas Secretary of State in 2011, I saw baby boomer retirements occurring in my own agency," he wrote. "Realizing this opportunity, I directed my deputies to reassign the duties of retiring employees to those who remained. Wherever possible, the open positions were not to be filled. We left approximately (one-third) of the vacancies unfilled."
Applying that policy to the rest of state government, however, raises obvious concerns, especially for agencies that provide more critical services to the public than the secretary of state's office.
Robert Choromanski, head of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, a union that represents many state workers, said such a policy on a statewide level would have far-reaching consequences.
"I think it’s a terrible idea because Gov. Brownback has already downsized the state workforce through attrition, voluntary buyouts of state employees and other ways to basically reduce our workforce by about 5,000 employees throughout his term," he said during a telephone interview.
"Basically it’s a big brain drain," he said. "We’re losing a lot of veteran and qualified people who have the expertise to run the state government. While I understand people will be retiring and moving on with their lives, we still need to fill those positions because there are a lot of valuable and very important programs that still need state employees to run them."
If such a policy were adopted statewide, the biggest impact would be felt at the state's Regents institutions because they make up the largest single group of state employees.
In recent years, both the Board of Regents, which governs higher education in the state, and the Kansas State Department of Education, which governs K-12 education, have established policy goals of increasing the college attainment rate in Kansas in order to meet the workforce demands of business and industry in the coming years.
Achieving that goal would almost certainly require increasing faculty and staff levels at state colleges and universities, not cutting them.
Kobach, however, said he does not think an attrition program would seriously affect higher education.
"As a former full-time faculty member at a law school, I am familiar with the unnecessary spending that can be trimmed from higher education," Kobach said in an email, referring to his previous career as a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
"Although the number of professors is usually based on the projected number of students in an academic institution, professors usually make up only a minority of employees at a university," he said. "The number of support staff is often much greater than necessary and can be significantly reduced to save taxpayers money. The cost of higher education has been rising at approximately double the rate of inflation. Those costs must be brought under control."
Outside of higher education, though, Choromanski said there are a number of state agencies and programs that are already suffering from critical staff shortages. Among those, he said, is the Department for Children and Families, whose employees respond to reports of abuse and neglect against children and the elderly, and who oversee children in the state's foster care system.
"That's very critical because they have tons of backlog at DCF," he said. "They are just constantly overwhelmed with tons of cases. And Kansas has one of the highest rates of children being placed in foster care. That just puts a lot of burden and work on social workers."
Kobach, however, insisted that there is room in Kansas to reduce the government workforce.
"Kansas ranks third highest among the states in the number of state and local government employees per capita," he said in an email. "Kansas is 32 (percent) above the national average. These statistics make clear that there is ample room to shrink the number of government employees."
An aide to Kobach said those numbers come from a Kansas Policy Institute report published in March showing Kansas had 670.9 state and local government employees per 10,000 residents, more than any other state except Alaska and Wyoming.
However, according to KPI's analysis, that was largely due to high employment in local government, which includes cities, counties, townships, school districts and a host of other kinds of taxing jurisdictions. Looking only at state government employment, Kansas ranked 17th from the top, with 172.5 employees per 10,000 residents.
Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward, of Wichita, a Democratic candidate for governor, said cuts in the state workforce have already had a significant impact in Kansas.
"You can make Draconian cuts to government but we are seeing the results of that in the staffing crisis at our largest prison," he said in an email. "We won't have good schools, roads, or police protection and that's not the way to make government more efficient. This is more of the Brownback/Colyer experiment."
Kobach said he would exempt law enforcement and military services like the National Guard from an attrition policy.