Consolidation of power a concern

05/01/2011 12:00 AM

05/01/2011 12:07 AM

After 100-plus days in office, who is Gov. Sam Brownback?

He is the amiable executive, wandering around the Capitol with no security, talking to his constituents. He's the saint of rural Kansas, bestowing tax benefits to return the flock to the farm. He's the efficiency expert, who wants to make Kansas government run better. And he's the geographer, with his promised Kansas "road map" to prosperity.

Maybe. As the legislative session ends, we might take off the rose-colored glasses and examine some trends from the first few months of the Brownback governorship.

As with any governor in 2011 Kansas, he's a cutter. He's made or proposed cuts to address the state's budget issues, which, while serious, scarcely rise to the crisis level of many other states.

Many targets are the most obvious, such as K-12 education. If you seek to solve problems through spending cuts, you go where the money is.

But if that's the case, why attack the Kansas Arts Commission, public broadcasting and Planned Parenthood? Brownback's a cutter, to be sure, but he's also a conservative, and these three entities have long had a target on their backs for those who think government has no business in the arts, media and family planning. Bull's-eye.

Perversely, the Kansas cuts will have the greatest impact not in Johnson County or Lawrence but in rural areas, where modest funding for the arts, public radio and TV, and family planning are not easily replaced. And this is on top of further financial squeezes on rural schools.

Still, as much as Brownback is a cutter and a conservative, he's even more a consolidator. He has encountered no consolidation of government powers that he hasn't embraced.

Consolidation can make sense. For example, Brownback has established executive control over the Kansas Health Policy Authority, established in 2005 to keep then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius from better managing state health policy, especially Medicaid. A governor should have authority over such a major budget item.

In other instances, consolidation is counterproductive. Placing the Kansas Parole Board within the Department of Corrections is problematic, even perverse, given the board's independent history and mission. Likewise with Brownback's plan, since dropped, to move the small, independent Kansas Human Rights Commission to the Attorney General's Office.

The governor's attack on the Kansas Bioscience Authority has not yet played out, but the highly politicized resignation of its director demonstrates how much the agency's independence has been compromised.

Finally, and perhaps most important, Brownback has centralized all the state's hiring within the Department of Administration, as opposed to keeping it within individual state agencies. This is a tremendous slap at the departments, which have profited from past flexibilities in hiring.

Who knows better about hiring corrections professionals than the Department of Corrections?

In the end, such centralization threatens to politicize the state's hiring from top to bottom, either formally or with a wink and a nod. This pernicious consolidation reduces the effectiveness of state government.

So, despite his "meet-and-greet" strolls around the Capitol, despite his cutting and conservatism, stripped bare, Brownback is a consolidator of powers great and small. And that should be a concern for anyone who appreciates the broad distribution of authority that has long defined Kansas politics.

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