TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback abruptly replaced his labor secretary Thursday, a week after his administration touted her efforts to streamline her department and had her touring the state with other high-ranking officials to promote his economic policies.
Former Secretary Karen Brownlee said the Republican governor removed her from the top job at the Department of Labor and she suggested they disagreed over how well the agency was running. She has touted her efforts to cut administrative costs and staff — saying they haven't hurt services — but Democrats and union organizations have seen her as anti-labor.
Brownback's office announced Brownlee's departure in a short statement without giving a reason and said Rep. Lana Gordon of Topeka would serve as interim secretary. The statement did not thank Brownlee for her service or highlight accomplishments, something common when even controversial appointees leave voluntarily.
Brownlee told The Associated Press her departure wasn't voluntary and that she didn't sign a resignation letter. She said Caleb Stegall, the governor's chief counsel, told her she was expected to step down.
"I think the governor and I measure performance in different ways," Brownlee said. "It's hard to understand."
Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag declined to discuss the reasons for Brownlee's departure, adding, "It's a personnel matter."
The Department of Labor's most visible jobs are determining when out-of-work Kansans are eligible for unemployment benefits, distributing those benefits to them and ensuring that they are actively seeking new jobs. The agency also releases monthly reports on unemployment and the state's labor market, and settles disputes between injured workers and employers over medical care and other benefits.
Brownback and Brownlee are both conservative Republicans, and she had served in his administration since he became governor in January 2011. Even last week, the administration issued a statement praising Brownlee's management of her department and quoting her as saying that agencies could improve services without more money.
The statement highlighted a seven-city tour with Brownback's secretaries of revenue and commerce, in part to counter criticism of massive income tax cuts enacted this year. Brownback and other supporters believe the cuts will stimulate the economy, but critics believe they'll produce big budget shortfalls.
Since mid-2011, the Department of Labor has cut its overall staffing nearly 20 percent, shedding almost 150 positions. More than half were outside the civil service system.
The department's total operating budget for the current fiscal year, at $492 million, is less than half of what it was two years ago — though much of that reflects a decline in benefits.
Brownlee also has touted the department's work to reduce a backlog of several thousand appeals of decisions about whether workers were entitled to unemployment decisions.
"I was very, very pleased with what we were able to accomplish," she said. "The governor would have to comment on why he felt it was best that I not continue."
Labor groups and other Brownlee critics contend the staffing cuts hindered the department's handling of unemployment issues and even described her as "anti-worker."
"It's safe to say this should be seen as a welcome move, as far as labor is concerned," said Andy Sanchez, a lobbyist for the Kansas AFL-CIO.
But even Sanchez and other Brownlee critics were surprised Thursday night by her departure.
The governor's statement came hours after Brownlee announced that she had appointed Olathe Mayor Michael Copeland to serve as a deputy secretary, starting in October, to replace retiring Deputy Secretary Kathy Sparks.
"I assumed the way she was running that agency was the directive that she had," said State Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon. "Maybe that wasn't the case."
Brownlee, 57, had served in the Senate for 14 years when Brownback, then the incoming governor, named her to be his labor secretary. First elected to the Senate in 1996, she was chairwoman of its Commerce Committee before her appointment to the Cabinet.
Gordon, 62, also a Republican, has served in the House since 2001. She decided against seeking re-election this year. After three federal judges redrew the state's political boundaries in June to ensure equal representation, Gordon was in a district with two other incumbent House members.
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