Staff shortages a problem at state agencies

Among many state staffing shortages are livestock waste management environmental engineers.
Among many state staffing shortages are livestock waste management environmental engineers. AP

Once elected to office, even proponents of small government have a duty to govern competently. Yet nearly every report about state agencies or operations in Kansas these days includes some reference to how short staffing is verging on critical, with low pay often a factor.

Among the reasons to wonder about whether Kansas government is staffed so skeletally as to be risking health and safety:

▪  The Associated Press reported that the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s Livestock Waste Management Section has no full-time professional environmental engineers. The situation has created a backlog of permits for new or expanding feeding operations among the state’s 1,750 large feedlots, and delays to process wastewater permit applications for such operations.

•  Two employees of Larned State Hospital testified Monday to a joint legislative oversight committee that staffing shortages are creating dangerous conditions, and that workers fear discipline if they decline overtime shifts. Understaffing also has been part of the crisis at the other state psychiatric hospital, in Osawatomie, which lost its Medicare certification and federal funding as of December over safety concerns.

▪  A Sunday Eagle article about the role of red cedars in fueling the recent Anderson Creek wildfire revealed that even as the fire was burning in March, the Kansas Forest Service was required to relinquish more than $15,000 as part of statewide budget cuts. That came as the service, which has only been able to hire four staffers whose primary responsibility is fire, had asked for at least $1 million more in state matching funds.

Other alarms have been sounded recently about high turnover among social workers in the Department for Children and Families and the urgent need to hire more Kansas Highway Patrol troopers.

The recently passed budget bill did allow for higher pay in the Department of Corrections and Kansas Bureau of Investigation. But that budget no longer balances.

When the Brownback administration seeks to downplay the staffing problems across state government, legislators should not join in the spin. Part of their stewardship of Kansas is overseeing and scrutinizing how state government is functioning, and pursuing answers and corrective measures.

Especially as the true dimensions of the state budget gap are revealed in the coming days, all members of the executive and legislative branches need to be frank about the resources needed to replenish staffing across the responsibilities that are funded and operated by the state.