TOPEKA, Kan. — The Kansas Senate's Democratic leader promised Thursday to vote against confirming Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's top social services appointee, accusing him of using intimidation to obtain a public endorsement from a mental health group.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, also criticized Secretary Rob Siedlecki over the hiring of several new high-ranking aides at the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services whose salaries are $75,000 or more. Hensley questioned whether the positions are necessary.
But the mental health group's executive director said he wasn't intimidated into writing the letter for Siedlecki, and Brownback's administration said the top aides' jobs were financed with savings in personnel costs elsewhere. It also wasn't clear whether Republicans, who hold a 32-8 majority in the Senate, have misgivings about the SRS secretary.
Siedlecki became SRS secretary when Brownback took office in January, but if senators didn't confirm the appointment, he'd have to give up the job. His appointment is before the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which had a confirmation hearing this week and plans another Monday.
"I don't believe that Secretary Siedlecki is qualified," Hensley said during a Statehouse news conference. "I've just heard from a number of senators that have similar concerns about whether he is really capable of doing the job."
Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican, said she thinks the committee will endorse Siedlecki's confirmation, but she wouldn't predict how the full Senate would vote.
She said senators have questions because SRS is a large agency dealing with some of the state's most vulnerable residents. 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.
"This is not a secretarial confirmation to take lightly," she said.
Siedlecki declined to comment himself as he prepared to leave Thursday on a trip with Brownback to Parsons, in southeast Kansas. But Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag offered a strong endorsement.
"Secretary Siedlecki is a highly qualified public servant who is already off to a great start implementing proven approaches to reducing childhood poverty and improving the delivery of vital social services," she said.
Hensley said he's troubled by the aftermath of a March 17 meeting between Siedlecki and officials from the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas.
Michael Hammond, the group's executive director, said about 30 people met with Siedlecki for about an hour to discuss a wide range of issues about the state budget, past cuts and potential future reductions.
After that meeting, Hensley said, a participant in the meeting sent a senator an email. Hensley released what he said was a copy, with the name of the sender and the recipient blacked out.
In it, the sender said Siedlecki had told the group he was waiting for legislators to finish the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
The email writer quoted the SRS secretary as saying that after that, "He would then reallocate the money to fund initiatives that were of interest to him" and suggested that Siedlecki intended to ignore legislators' desires.
Five days later, on Tuesday, Hammond sent a letter to McGinn under the association's letterhead, saying the person sending the email misunderstood the secretary and didn't speak for the group. The letter also endorsed Siedlecki's confirmation.
Hensley said of Siedlecki: "Through fear and intimidation, he was able to secure a letter of endorsement."
Pressed by reporters for more details, Hensley said: "I know this from conversations that I've had with members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. They were told by people who were basically in the room."
Hammond said he did meet with Siedlecki and members of the SRS secretary's staff about the email, which had circulated among Ways and Means Committee members. He sent his letter to McGinn the same day.
"The secretary was clearly not happy over this development," Hammond acknowledged.
Hammond said he told Siedlecki and his staff that he was willing to meet with the Senate Ways and Means Committee to tell it that the email did not represent the association's views and that it backed Siedlecki's confirmation. A staff member suggested a letter because the email had circulated, Hammond said.
"The secretary did not ask me for the letter," Hammond said. "We have a long-standing relationship with the state of Kansas, and I have to protect that interest."
As for Siedlecki's comments about the budget, Hammond said the SRS secretary was trying to reassure the people in the March 17 meeting that he'll work with them and other interested parties in dealing with budget cuts.
"I thought it was important to set the record straight," Hammond said.
Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org
Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services: http://www.srs.ks.gov/
Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas: http://www.acmhck.org