GOP-controlled House overwhelmingly rejects proposals to form energy office, put social services under umbrella agency

House Republicans on Wednesday torpedoed Gov. Laura Kelly’s plans to reorganize state agencies as Democrats complained they were dabbling in partisan politics during a national crisis.


On mostly party line votes, the GOP-controlled House overwhelmingly rejected proposals to form a state energy office and to reunite social welfare services under a single agency.


Kelly hoped to create a Department of Human Services that would absorb the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, Department for Children and Families and the juvenile justice division of the Department of Corrections. The governor’s proposal would undo the 2012 splintering of the former Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services under Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.


Advocates for the beleaguered foster care system hailed Kelly’s proposal as a way to better streamline services for children in state custody.


"We know what we have now is not working,“ said Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence. ”Why not try something else so that we don't have to worry about what's going to happen to our foster children?"


Republicans in the House said they couldn’t see how the proposed umbrella agency would make things better.


"There is a lot of lack of detail and communication as to exactly how this will work,“ said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita.


Rep. Russell Jennings, R-Lakin, said he would prefer the Legislature reinstall the Juvenile Justice Authority to provide oversight of reform enacted four years ago to remove children from incarceration.


Social workers have complained about the ramifications of juvenile justice reform because they lacked mental health resources to handle children with behavioral problems. A legislative audit found that most stakeholders believe the reform failed.


"I do sincerely believe there is a better option that will serve this cohort of kids,“ Jennings said. ”My concern is we take victimizers who committed crimes and put them under the umbrella of an agency that is working with victims, and internally, the struggle will be where will the resources be allocated? I've got news for you: They will spend the money on victims before they will victimizers. That's who wins in that internal agency argument."


Republican leaders said they called votes on the governor’s executive reorganization plans because they would take effect under state statute if the Legislature fails to act on them within 60 days. Lawmakers were working to adjourn this week for at least a month.


The House rejected the governor’s proposed social services realignment by 82-35 vote. Her plan to create an independent energy office failed by 72-46 vote.


“When the time is right, I will revisit these goals,” Kelly said. “At this point, I am focusing on our response to the COVID-19 pandemic and keeping Kansas families, communities and businesses safe."


Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, took his colleagues to task for being “the party of no.”


It doesn’t matter if the ideas for realignment are good, he said, but if it is the governor’s idea, Republicans will say no.


"This is pure, blatant partisanship,“ Carmichael said. ”Let the word go out from the Kansas House of Representatives that in the face of a national emergency, we vote party line. Party discipline! Party discipline prevails here. Let's don't kid ourselves."