Politics & Government

Kobach wants to shrink the ranks of state workers, but it’s already happening

Kris Kobach, a candidate for governor, wants to dramatically reduce government by not replacing retiring workers.
Kris Kobach, a candidate for governor, wants to dramatically reduce government by not replacing retiring workers.

Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and candidate for governor, wants to dramatically reduce government by not replacing retiring workers.

But in Kansas, the ranks of state government workers have already been shrinking for years.

The number of state government positions contracted by 21 percent over the past decade, shedding nearly 5,200 jobs. From more than 24,370 positions in 2007, the number stood at about 18,974 in 2016, according to statistics compiled by the Kansas Department of Administration.

In a sweeping opinion piece on Breitbart News last week, Kobach argued the retirement of baby boomers over the next two decades could allow conservatives to shrink the size of government through attrition, at both the state and federal level.

“The baby boomers are creating those vacancies by the thousand as they retire,” Kobach wrote. “Fortunately, this historic opportunity coincides with a President who is serious about cutting the size of government.

“If he declines to fill those vacancies and if state governors do the same, we could witness the first substantial reduction in big government in our nation’s history. But it will take political will to make it happen.”

The average age of state workers in Kansas is 47. Nearly half of workers are 50 or older.

Kobach acknowledged in a statement to The Eagle that the number of government workers had declined but argued it isn’t enough.

An analysis of 2014 Census data by Governing Magazine found that Kansas ranked ninth in the number of state and local government employees per capita, with 272 workers for every 10,000 people. Education workers were excluded from the calculations. An analysis cited by Kobach by the Kansas Policy Institute of 2015 Census data found the state had the third-highest per capita level of government employment.

Cutting the number of state workers is nothing new in Kansas. Gov. Sam Brownback moved to shed workers as recently as 2011 when employees were offered buyouts to retire early. Brownback also cut some 2,000 vacant positions within state government.

More than 1,000 employees took the buyout offer, though some 200 positions were also backfilled. The Brownback administration estimated at the time the reduction would save about $25 million a year.

It’s unclear how much in savings eventually materialized, but $25 million is a relatively small amount in a state budget of more than $6 billion.

Dennis Taylor, who was Brownback’s secretary of administration at the time of the buyout program, said the program’s biggest advantage and disadvantage was that it was voluntary.

“It allowed for agencies and departments to bring in employees with fresh, new thinking and experience in those positions that were back-filled. It allowed management, with the interest and ability, to re-structure and enhance some positions in areas that were overstaffed,” he wrote in an email.

The downside was that management within agencies had to re-work some position so that remaining workers could take on some of the duties of those leaving, Taylor said. Some of the remaining workers were less than enthusiastic, he recalled.

“Naturally, since it was, after all, a ‘retirement program,’ most of those leaving the state workforce were among the more experienced staff,” Taylor wrote. “This is the flip-side of the opportunity to bring in new thinking and experience.”

Kobach, in a statement, indicated that he would rather use natural attrition instead of buyouts to reduce the workforce.

“Only if for some reason we didn't see a substantial number of baby boomers retiring would I consider using a voluntary buyout program like Brownback's,” Kobach said.

Robert Choromanski, director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees – the union that represents state workers – said not replacing departing workers places additional stress on workers who remain. He acknowledged baby boomer workers will be retiring, creating a “brain drain,” but rejected Kobach’s proposal.

“I’m sorry for Kris Kobach, but we need to replace them with new workers because there’s still a lot of work to be done,” Choromanski said.

Statewide, the consequences of the shrinking workforce are clear, said Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka.

“It is evident in all of our agencies where they’re so under-resourced now that they’re not able to provide the services they were set up to provide in the first place,” Kelly said.

State prisons have been grappling with high numbers of vacant positions, prompting Brownback to raise pay for corrections officers. Several counties throughout Kansas have no dedicated highway patrol troopers.

Kobach wrote that law enforcement agencies and the military should be exempt from an attrition program.

In his op-ed, Kobach points to the secretary of state’s office as a success story of downsizing through attrition. He says the agency’s workforce has shrunk by 18 percent over six years.

The office’s spending declined by more than 30 percent and the office still carries out the same responsibilities as it did when he took over, he said.

“Shortly after I became Kansas Secretary of State in 2011, I saw baby boomer retirements occurring in my own agency. Realizing this opportunity, I directed my deputies to reassign the duties of retiring employees to those who remained,” Kobach wrote.

In the end, he said about a third of vacancies went unfilled.

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman