Voters longing for down-to-earth pragmatism instead of scorched-earth Trumpism flocked to Gov.-elect Laura Kelly in droves last month, and her supporters already have ample reason to be bullish on our investments. Curing Kansas of its litany of ailments – poor economic growth, aging infrastructure, school finance woes and the DCF’s well-publicized struggles included – would be yeoman’s work for anyone, even without a Legislature hampered by the usual partisan gridlock. There are no sure fixes, but many of us who came over to Kelly from the right were lured by the promise of strong leadership and transparency – not by ideology – and Kelly’s early moves reflect that she got the message loud and clear.
It was no secret that former Gov. Sam Brownback detested the merit-based selection process for Court of Appeals judges and Supreme Court justices, and he did everything he could to abolish the process in favor of direct appointment by the governor. In 2013, Brownback was successful at pushing through the change at the Court of Appeals level.
Kelly will soon be making her first appointment to the Court of Appeals – Judge Patrick D. McAnany has reached the mandatory retirement age of 75, and his term will expire on Jan. 14, 2019 – and Kelly, too, could appoint McAnany’s replacement directly, subject only to Senate confirmation. But Kelly announced recently that she has instead elected to return to merit-based selection, stating: “This is not required, but I believe the people of Kansas deserve to observe this process and know that we are choosing a highly-qualified person to serve in this important judicial position. I am committed to being open and transparent.”
Detractors will argue that the nonpartisan selection committee is actually left-leaning, rendering the process unfair, but this argument falls flat – how can a process that involves public interviews to comprise a list of three candidates for Kelly’s consideration, while still maintaining the requirement of Senate confirmation, not be preferable to direct appointment by the governor?
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Kelly campaigned on a plan to curtail the use of no-bid contracts in the future. She reaffirmed this plan in the weeks following her election, vowing to “avoid them like plague.” Kelly also plans to carefully evaluate economic development incentives granted by the Kansas Department of Commerce. What process is more susceptible to closed-door bartering and political favoritism than the no-bid contract? Sticking to this promise throughout her entire term will require considerably more discipline than the move back to merit-based selection, but Kelly is sending the right message from the outset by offering to be held accountable.
If there is one high-stakes matter that Kelly is equipped to handle from day one, it is transformation of the DCF from a secretive and dangerously ineffective institution into an agency that is both functional and transparent. This is squarely within the Gov.-elect’s wheelhouse, as it was Kelly who blew the whistle on the DCF losing children within the foster care system, and it was Kelly who stood her ground on a child welfare task force and demanded answers amidst unprecedented turmoil and dysfunction within the agency. Many of the DCF’s shortcomings can be attributed to an utter lack of staff and resources, and it will be up to Kelly prioritize the search for solutions come January.
We’ll have to wait out the results before Kelly can earn credit for blazing some of these trails. But after years of living in the dark in Kansas, we should start by being thankful that someone has found the light switch.