Noonletter, Dec. 7, 2018

Dec 7, 2018
Originally published on December 10, 2018 8:11 am

Musical chairs

After years in the Kansas Legislature, it’s natural that Democratic Gov.-elect Laura Kelly would turn to people she’s known there to start filling out key spots in her administration.

For starters, she picked Will Lawrence as her chief of staff. It’s a powerful, right-hand position to a governor. The chief of staff can control access to the governor and play an important role in setting priorities. Lawrence has been chief of staff to Democratic Senate Leader Anthony Hensley.

He also worked as Hensley’s legislative director and legal counsel before becoming the minority chief of staff. And he worked in the law firm of former state representative and failed candidate for the U.S. House and governor Paul Davis.

Lawrence has shown a willingness to reach beyond purely legislative pursuits and wander into politics. For instance, he filed a legal challenge to independent candidate Greg Orman's right to appear on the ballot. (The challenge went nowhere. Orman was on the ballot.) At the time, conventional wisdom held that Orman could win enough votes to cost a Democrat the governor’s race and leave Republican Kris Kobach with a winning plurality.

To fill the vacancy left by Lawrence’s job change, the Sunflower State Journal reports,  Hensley hired Kerry Gooch as chief of staff.  Gooch is a former executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party. Gooch also ran Davis’ congressional campaign. Davis was unopposed in the primary, but he lost the general election to Republican newcomer Steve Watkins.

Trade warrior

U.S. Rep. Ron Estes, a Wichita Republican, represents a district that sells lots of farm commodities and airplanes overseas. So America’s up-and-down trade relations with China can sting.

Estes concedes the pain has hit Kansas. Yet he said on public radio station WBUR’s Here & Now program that tariffs are needed to force the Chinese to fairly open their markets to American goods and agricultural products.

“At the end of the day, tariffs are not a good idea,” he told Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson. “We want to have open markets. We want to have free trade. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have any tariffs at all, and I think the president’s even said that.”

Still, Estes said he backs President Donald Trump’s willingness to impose tariffs on Chinese imports as a way to, ultimately, force a more open market for U.S. exports to China.

Spending more, and hoping for a fix

The Kansas Department for Children and Families found another place to spend $35 million.

Agency boss Gina Meier-Hummel said Thursday the taxpayer money will put more contractors to work and design a system that better shares critical details about a child’s case with social workers, police, foster care agencies and the like.

By splitting up territory in Kansas among more contractors, Meier-Hummel said, children caught up in the state’s chronically troubled foster care system won’t have to be driven so far when they need a new placement.

At a news conference Thursday, Stephen Koranda reports, the DCF chief introduced the new stable of contractors.

“We have tried to listen and create the best child welfare system in Kansas,” Meier-Hummel said. “I truly believe that is what you’re going to receive as a result.”

She also defended the choice to hire Eckerd Connects. It’s a Florida nonprofit that’s sometimes held kids overnight in offices — a phenomenon Kansas wants to move away from.

But foster kids won’t cycle through Eckerd offices in the first place. Other contractors have the job of making foster placements. Rather, Eckerd is being hired for family preservation work — working with parents and children to keep them together and hopefully avoiding the need for foster care.

Meier-Hummel also said that Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer won’t finalize the contracts. That would come when Kelly takes office. Balking on the plan might be tough and add more confusion to a foster care system that’s already struggling. Also, it’s unclear whether Meier-Hummel would still lead the agency when Kelly is governor.

Scott Canon is digital editor of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @ScottCanon.

 Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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