Some Republicans in Kansas are now calling for Phyllis Gilmore to be removed as Secretary of the Department for Children and Families, a fact that could have implications in next year's race for governor.
Gilmore has long been a target of criticism from Democrats who allege, among other things, that she has mismanaged the state's privatized foster care system, where a number of children have died while in state custody. They also have alleged she openly discriminates against same-sex couples in the placement of children in foster care.
Republicans, however, have largely stood by her, even though they did agree this year to form a special task force to review the state's entire child welfare system, although the task force's report won't be released until after a new administration is sworn into office in 2019.
The latest barrage, however, was prompted earlier this week during a meeting of that task force when it was revealed that more than 70 children in foster care are currently missing. People who were in the meeting when that was revealed said Gilmore appeared both unaware and unconcerned about the situation.
Former Rep. Mark Hutton of Wichita, who is now running for the GOP nomination for governor, issued a statement early Friday, "calling for leadership change at the Brownback-Colyer administration's Department of Children and Families."
"Department of Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore has been in her position in the Brownback-Colyer administration for over five years, a tenure increasingly defined by a total lack of accountability and a near endless stream of failures affecting foster children, at-risk youth, and children facing abuse in their home environments," Hutton said.
As Hutton's comment was circulating on social media Friday, a sitting GOP lawmaker went even further, suggesting that the entire leadership team at DCF needs to go, not just Gilmore.
"From what DCF employees have told me, nothing gets better until everyone at the administrative level is gone. It’s never just the Secretary," Rep. Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park, tweeted at 10:47 a.m. Friday.
Asked if that meant she believed more people at DCF need to be removed than just Gilmore, she replied, "yes."
"And, bear in mind, we have excellent people at the ground-level in DCF. Just at the admin level where there are problems," she said in a follow-up tweet.
The calls for Gilmore's removal have clear implications for Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who is preparing to step into the governor's office, if and when Gov. Sam Brownback is confirmed for a diplomatic post in the Trump administration. Colyer is also running for a full term of his own in 2018.
The statement from Hutton, who is not nearly as widely known as Colyer and some other GOP candidates in the race, was obviously aimed at Colyer, who will likely be running as an incumbent governor when GOP voters go to the polls in the August primary, assuming Brownback is confirmed for the State Department job. That, however, could be both a blessing and a curse, depending on how Colyer plays it.
On the one hand, Colyer is in danger of inheriting a lot of baggage from Brownback, who will leave office with perhaps the lowest approval rating of any recent governor since Joan Finney, and many observers say it will be hard for Colyer to somehow distance himself from the administration in which he has played a central role for seven years.
On the other hand, though, the situation with Gilmore could give him the opportunity to do just that.
In recent months, Colyer has been loathe to speak out on substantive issues as long as Brownback is still the governor. "Right now, we have one governor at a time," he told reporters who tried to get him to talk last month.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said Tuesday he plans to stay in office until he is confirmed by the U.S. Senate for a diplomatic post in the Trump administration, something he said he hopes will happen as early as next month.
Brownback has been nominated by President Donald Trump to be the nation's ambassador at-large for religious freedom, a post housed in the State Department. Speaking informally with reporters Tuesday at the Statehouse, Brownback said he has had conversations with Senate leaders and believes he has bipartisan support for the position. He also said he hoped his confirmation could be completed in September.
The schedule for his Senate confirmation has not yet been announced and probably won't be announced until Congress returns from its August recess. It is expected that the process will begin with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
A swift confirmation would be helpful to Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who will succeed Brownback in the governor's office once Brownback resigns, because it would give him a running start in preparation for the 2018 legislative session.
During this year's session, lawmakers passed a two-year budget for state government, but there are always tweaks that need to be made in the second year. Sept. 15 is the deadline for most state agencies to submit their budget requests for the upcoming fiscal year. After that, the next official revenue estimates are due in early November. Those are used as the basis of the budget proposal the governor makes to the Legislature in January.
Colyer has been in a somewhat awkward position since Brownback announced in July that he planned to accept the ambassadorship. Trying hard not to upstage Gov. Brownback during his final days or weeks in office, Colyer has quietly been putting together his own management and campaign teams while also avoiding the news media.
Last week, Colyer announced with a press release that he intends to run for a full term as governor. He also announced the appointment of Kansas Republican Party executive director Clay Barker as his new chief of staff, and former WIBW-TV reporter Kara Fullmer as his new press secretary.
In any given year, no matter who the governor is, one of the basic questions lawmakers have to deal with is what the governor will accept. That's just as true for big issues like budgets and taxes as it is for relatively obscure issues like funding the state water plan.
Normally, legislative leaders deal with that by having regular talks with the governor, or meeting with his or her staff, and talking about the details of legislation. What does the governor want? What will he or she accept or not accept? What can the leaders pass through their respective chambers?
Throughout this session, though, members of both parties in both chambers have complained that they have found it increasingly difficult to do that with Gov. Sam Brownback. For some, the frustration started the opening week of the session when, after convincing lawmakers two years ago to repeal the school finance law that had been in place since the early 1990s and begin work on crafting a new one, Brownback offered no specific proposal of his own, saying that was a legislative responsibility.
And now with the specific news that he may, or may not, leave office soon to accept a job in Rome as the Trump administration's U.N. ambassador for agriculture and food agencies, one might think the problem might get even worse.
Surprisingly, though, members of both parties, and in both chambers, are saying it almost doesn't matter anymore where the governor goes because they're working on their own agendas, at their own schedules.
"I don't know that it's a big consideration to us at this point," said Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia. "We know what we need to do. We need to come up with a structurally balanced budget and a tax plan that supports it. I don't know that we've worried at this point what the governor will sign or won't sign. I think we're trying to find consensus within our own body about what that budget and tax looks like, and we'll pass it out of here when we find it, regardless of who's in the governor's chair."
Brownback hasn't officially commented on the story, first reported Wednesday by Kansas Public Radio, which cited a single anonymous source. But he did nothing to dampen the speculation Thursday when, responding to questions from reporters, he declined to commit to staying in the governor's office through the end of the session.
The only statement from the governor's office concerning the possibility of his resigning came Wednesday from his spokeswoman, Melika Willoughby, who said, "Governor Brownback is focused on working with the Kansas legislature to balance the budget and pass a modern school funding system."
But Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, has said that's not what she has seen. As recently as Tuesday, just before the Senate shot down, by a vote of 1-37, Brownback's tax proposal for balancing the state budget, she accused Brownback of refusing to work with lawmakers.
"We met yesterday (Monday). We had a leadership meeting yesterday," she said. "We threw out some concepts and he wasn't very interested in budget stability and predictability, so this is where we start."
Asked in advance what she thought a negative vote would mean, she said: "For most legislators, all it's saying is the governor is refusing to acknowledge that we have a deep budget hole, and he's refusing to give us solutions. If anybody's playing games, it's the governor."
Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, the assistant minority leader in the Senate, agreed that the prospect of the governor leaving midsession is having little impact on the legislative process.
"We've been pretty much left on our own to deal with the taxes, to deal with the budget, to deal with school finance," she said. "His office has not been engaged at all, from what I can see, other than to wield his veto pen. So I think we'll just keep doing what we're doing and deal with whoever is in the governor's seat when the time comes."
Meanwhile on the House side, Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, said he's been struggling to get Brownback's attention on a relatively mundane issue, but one that Brownback has said is a high priority: finding a way to fund a long-term plan to protect the state's dwindling water resources.
"I called the governor's staff this (Thursday) morning and said, you guys have not engaged," Sloan said. "The governor hasn't done anything. His agencies haven't come in and said, 'This is what we want.' They all supported the Blue Ribbon Task Force (which recommended earmarking about $50 million out of existing sales tax revenue for water projects). But they backed off because they knew that wasn't going to pass. But they're not offering anything else. They're not supporting anything else."
Sloan is one of the few Republicans willing to say out loud what many will say only privately, that he thinks it might be easier on the Legislature if Brownback does leave.
"If (Lt. Gov.) Jeff Colyer becomes governor, yes he has ties to the administration's policies, but he's not identified with most of them," Sloan said. "And so it may be easier for him to accept an income tax reform bill than it is for Governor Brownback."
One exception to that, Sloan acknowledged, is KanCare, the state's privatized Medicaid system, which is largely the product of Colyer's efforts.
"On most issues he is not (tied to Brownback's policies)," Sloan said. "On KanCare he certainly is and I would not expect him to support a Medicaid expansion bill. But he may have more flexibility on the income tax."
Sen. Kelly, however, said she thinks it's too early for lawmakers to start pondering whether Brownback or Colyer will be the governor by the end of the session.
"It depends, one, on if he gets the position, which he has not gotten yet, and, two, if he can move in before he's confirmed," she said. "If he has to wait until Senate confirmation, he could be here until December."
Gov. Sam Brownback announced Tuesday he has formed the Kansas Humanitarian Commission, which will recognize Kansans and Kansas groups for their global and local charitable efforts.
Brownback has asked Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer and Ashleigh Black to co-chair the commission.
Colyer, a physician, has volunteered for more than 20 years through the International Medical Corps to bring medical care in war-torn areas. Black is associate director of the George Washington Center for Global Health in Washington, D.C.
Colyer and Black will name the remaining members of the commission, which will set up an annual Kansas Governor's Humanitarian of the Year award.
Topeka — One third of the people with physical disabilities who have been waiting for assistance from the state have been removed from the list, many because they could not be reached, Gov. Sam Brownback's administration announced Monday.
Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, and Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services Secretary Shawn Sullivan said the state now has a better handle on the waiting list and officials will move forward with spending money that was available July 1 to provide services for 100 people.
The issue centers on a program that provides services to help Kansans with physical disabilities live in their homes or other community-based settings as an alternative to more expensive and confining nursing home care.
Brownback's administration has been under fire for not providing help to thousands of low-income Kansans with physical disabilities. The federal government has been investigating complaints that the state is violating the civil rights of people who are waiting for assistance, some of whom have been waiting for years.
In July, 3,462 people with physical disabilities were on the waiting list.
The Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services hired a call center to try to contact people on the waiting list. The agency then had the Centers for Independent Living and other case management entities certify those on the waiting list.
Secretary Sullivan said 1,226 people were removed from the waiting list.
Many could not be reached and about 10 percent were determined ineligible for services, he said. Sullivan provided no specific numbers from survey, but did say a small percentage had died while on the waiting list.
Colyer and Sullivan said that people who are on the waiting list who fall into a crisis or life-threatening situation can access the care that they need.
Colyer said the state's proposal to move to KanCare, which places the Medicaid program in the hands of private managed care companies, will provide better continuity of services for those with disabilities.
Advocates for people with physical disabilities have been filing Olmstead complaints, based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision that says states must provide services to people with disabilities to enable them to be more integrated in the community.
Earlier this year, negotiations between the Brownback administration and officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services broke down. HHS then forwarded the waiting list complaints to the U.S. Justice Department, which has said enforcement of the Olmstead ruling is a top priority of the agency.