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Dec. 12, 2011
TOPEKA Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan to move several public health and juvenile justice programs into the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services is meeting growing resistance from legislators, public health advocates and others.
“We’ve encouraged our members to write their legislators and ... the Governor’s Office,” said Michelle Ponce, executive director at the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments.
The Brownback reorganization plan was announced Nov. 8 as part of the administration's intended makeover of the state Medicaid program. The agency shifts would move various programs from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to SRS, including those dealing with child care licensing, Healthy Start home visitors, pregnancy maintenance and teen pregnancy prevention.
“These are programs that are subject to a federal block grant that’s administered by KDHE,” Ponce said. “If they’re moved to SRS, a lot of county health departments are going to end up having to deal with two agencies — two bureaucracies — instead of one.”
Ponce, a former SRS director of communications, said the association also objects to putting health programs within an agency charged with protecting children and administering the state’s poverty programs.
“These are public health programs,” Ponce said. “They belong in the department of health. They’re focused on a much broader population than the one that’s served by SRS.”
Ponce said none of her group's members were consulted before the reorganization plan was announced.
“The lack of communication is of great concern because, as we all know, the devil is in the details,” she said. “Right now, we don’t know what those details are.”
The Brownback plan, which is expected to be formally presented to the Legislature in the form of an executive reorganization order (ERO) in January, also would move various programs from the Juvenile Justice Authority to SRS.
Once an ERO is introduced, the Kansas House and Senate have 60 days to reject it. If it is not rejected by either chamber, the reorganization would become effective July 1, 2012.
Brownback officials last month said the upcoming ERO would require a major overhaul of SRS and the Kansas Department on Aging, including:
• Moving all of the state’s home- and community-based services for the disabled out of SRS and into the Kansas Department on Aging. The Department on Aging also would assume responsibility of the state's mental health programs, including oversight of the state hospitals for the mentally ill or developmentally disabled. The aging department would then be renamed the Department on Aging and Human Services.
• Relocating nine programs for pregnant women, young mothers, infants and toddlers from KDHE to SRS.
• Shifting several assessment and prevention programs from JJA to SRS.
The proposal’s effect on the juvenile authority was discussed during a Nov. 29 meeting of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice.
“That meeting didn’t go too well,” said Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, a committee member. “I think it’s safe to say there’s a lot of resentment building up toward the administration’s wanting to tear JJA down so that they can build it back up again. No one is saying things can’t be better. What they are saying is that there’s a process for constructive change, and right now that’s a process that’s not being followed.”
During the meeting, several community and law enforcement officials said they had not been consulted about the planned changes.
“That’s not an acceptable approach,” said Sen. Tim Owens, an Overland Park Republican.
Owens was chief legal counsel at SRS from 1988 to 1991. He helped start the juvenile authority after policymakers concluded that SRS was ill-equipped to help children who had committed crimes and were at risk of becoming repeat offenders.
“A lot of improvements have been made in the last 20 years,” Owens said. “I don’t think we want to be going back to the way it was.”
All the complaints have sparked rumors that the administration is reconsidering its plan to move programs into SRS.
“That tells me that this administration wasn’t expecting the level and the volume of pushback that it got in committee,” Ward said. “SRS has had JJA in the past, and a lot of people don’t want to see (SRS) get it back.”
"I feel fairly confident that the ERO is dead," said Rep. Pat Colloton, a Leawood Republican who chairs the Joint Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice Oversight.
Colloton said she had discussed the issue with David Kensinger, Brownback's chief of staff. Subsequently, the administration sent a letter to the Kansas Advisory Group on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to form a subcommittee and spend a year studying ways to improve interactions between SRS and JJA.
“Now, it doesn’t say the ERO is dead,” Colloton said, referring to the letter. “What it does say is, ‘We’re doing this instead.’”
Administration officials refused to confirm the rumors but issued a statement that left open the possibility that they might backtrack on the original plan.
“The governor has yet to issue any EROs,” Sherriene Jones-Sontag wrote in an email to KHI News Service. “He will do so during the first 30 days of the 2012 session.”
Jones-Sontag is Brownback's chief spokesperson.