TOPEKA — Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's top social services appointee appeared Monday to be headed toward Kansas Senate confirmation, despite a public warning from the chamber's top Democrat that it will create "a disaster waiting to happen."
The Senate Ways and Means Committee endorsed Social and Rehabilitation Services Secretary Rob Siedlecki's confirmation on a voice vote. His appointment now goes to the full Senate, where a vote is expected this week.
Republicans hold a 32-8 majority, and GOP senators haven't voiced significant misgivings. Even Siedlecki's most vocal critic, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, conceded that the SRS secretary is likely to win confirmation.
Hensley has accused Siedlecki of using intimidation to obtain a written endorsement from the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas. He also contends the SRS secretary intends to ignore legislative directions on the budget to finance favored initiatives.
Siedlecki said the allegations are untrue, and Brownback offered a strong endorsement of his appointee. Siedlecki is a former high-ranking Florida Department of Health official who also worked in the U.S. Justice and U.S. Health and Human Services departments under Republican President George W. Bush.
"Rob is enormously qualified," Brownback told reporters. "Anybody that would suggest differently, I would challenge."
Asked about Hensley's allegations, Brownback said: "I just don't think they are backed up by the facts, at all."
Hensley has promised to vote against Siedlecki's confirmation, and other Democrats are expected to join him.
"Under his leadership, SRS is a disaster waiting to happen," Hensley said. "I want to be a position that when the disaster occurs, I can say that, 'You know, I predicted that... was going to happen.' "
The Ways and Means Committee endorsed Siedlecki's confirmation with no one voicing opposition after members questioned the SRS secretary for nearly an hour. Hensley's allegations did not come up, though senators did question Siedlecki about how he'd handle budget issues during a hearing last week.
Siedlecki faced questions Monday about his plans for faith-based initiatives. He said they are in the "conceptual stage," as he and staff gather ideas, but his goal is to involve faith-based groups in various programs.
Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, said she worries about groups providing services such as alcohol and drug addiction treatment to try to win religious converts.
Siedlecki said if a group gets money directly from the state, such evangelism won't be allowed, and if the state gives a voucher to a client, the person won't have to choose a faith-based group.
"I'll make sure that all of our providers stick to the law," he said.
He also discussed Brownback's proposal to close the Kansas Neurological Institute, the state hospital for the developmentally disabled in Topeka. Brownback's budget plan includes recommendations to move many of the 150 or so KNI residents to community programs by 2013. Critics worry that community services won't be adequate, and Topeka-area legislators generally oppose the idea.
Siedlecki disclosed that SRS is talking with private groups about taking over the hospital as an alternative. But after the meeting, Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said she thinks the state will find keeping the hospital open is fiscally sound and "morally right."
The SRS secretary's appointment is key 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.