Politics & Government

Kansas governor ousts labor secretary Brownlee

Gov. Sam Brownback ousted Secretary of Labor Karin Brownlee on Thursday.

The administration wouldn’t provide any reason for her departure.

Brownlee, an Olathe Republican who served as a senator from 1996 until 2011, when she was appointed by Brownback, declined to specify what led to her departure.

She said she was pleased with what she had “accomplished with my team at the Department of Labor.”

“It seems that a lot of good work was done,” she said. “But still it was the governor’s choice that I pursue other things.”

She said she cut staff and personnel costs by 35 percent and dramatically improved service, including a major reduction in the backlog of people awaiting unemployment appeals decisions.

She said that since she started, the backlog of appeals had shrunk from about 4,500 to 1,400.

“We should have that knocked out by the end of the year,” she said.

A spreadsheet she shared with The Eagle also showed department savings from renegotiated phone rates and elimination of contracts with consultants and vendors.

Brownback appointed Lana Gordon, who had just been named deputy secretary of the department Thursday, as the interim secretary.

Gordon, a former House member from Topeka who didn’t run for re-election this fall, officially joins the department Friday. A news release says she is a former small business owner and educator.

Brownback also announced Olathe Mayor Michael Copeland as a new deputy secretary. He used to be president of Security Savings Bank.

Brownlee’s official last day was Thursday. Her salary was $107,000, according to Brownback’s office.

Just last week, Brownlee flew around the state with Revenue Secretary Nick Jordan and Commerce Secretary Pat George promoting Brownback’s plans to improve the state economy. She promoted the massive tax cut bill Brownback signed into law earlier this year, along with the state’s growing oil and gas production.

She faced sharp criticism from labor organizations earlier this year for backing proposed new laws that would have eliminated her department’s responsibility to represent employees when they have a claim for unpaid wages of less than $10,000.

The bill also would have required employees who get a lump-sum severance payment to forego unemployment insurance benefits until the amount of time the severance would have covered under their current pay had passed. Those ideas failed to win approval in the Senate.

Brownlee said she talked with the administration about how things were going, but she declined to say what, if anything, the governor wanted her to improve or change.

Brownlee said she has no hard feelings about her departure.

“I respect the role of the governor,” she said.

Brownback’s administration ousted Juvenile Justice Authority Commissioner Curtis Whitten earlier this year, weeks before an audit uncovered poor management and lax discipline at the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex in Topeka. And Rob Siedlecki stepped down from his post as Secretary of Social and Rehabilitation Services late last year.