Former state Sen. Karin Brownlee views a few things differently from her new post as the Kansas Secretary of Labor, she told a Republican group during a speech on Sept. 7.
Installed as a member of Gov. Sam Brownback’s cabinet last January, Brownlee represented Gardner, Edgerton, Spring Hill and parts of Olathe in the Kansas Senate for more than a dozen years.
“I see things a whole lot differently from this side,” Brownlee said.
As a cabinet member, she serves on a committee tasked with spurring economic development in Kansas. As a legislator, she supported many bills that created incentives for large business, including STAR bonds at the Kansas Speedway.
At the time, she said, it grew the area with stores like Nebraska Furniture Mart.
“I’m glad we got the race track. It’s great to have, but how many small furniture stores in Olathe went out of business because of it,” she said. “Were we picking the winners and losers?”
Today, she said she’d like to see tax policies that allow everyone to flourish. That may include changes to the state’s income tax policy, although she stopped short of saying the Governor and cabinet members want to eliminate it.
“We want to go as far as we can go,” she said.
Improving employment conditions in southeastern Kansas also is high on the cabinet’s economic development team’s priority list. That part of the state has the highest unemployment, she said showing a colored map of Kansas in which the dark areas, centered in the southeastern part of the state, showed high unemployment numbers.
“They’ve struggled for some time,” she said.
Currently, unemployment in southeastern Kansashovers near 10 percent, while western parts of the state enjoy unemployment rates as low as 3.3 percent. Right now, Johnson County and the Wichita metropolitan area are the economic engines of the state.
“But we need every area to grow,” she told the group of approximately 20 people.
Although creating jobs is high on the Governor’s priority list, she said her daily duties at the Department of Labor do not include workforce development. Instead, the department handles unemployment claims for the state.
“You call us if you don’t have a job,” she said.
And making sure department employees picked up phones at the other end of line was one of her first goals when she was named to the Governor’s cabinet.
“When I started, the call center was broken,” she said.
As a legislator, she regularly took phone calls from the unemployed who couldn’t reach anyone at the Department of Labor.
“Having just walked out of the legislature and into this agency, I got those calls,” she said.
When she took the reins at the Department of Labor, the call center was fielding between 200 and 250 calls each day. Now, they average 1,800 calls per day.
In the meantime, she said the department’s finances were in critical condition.
“The money was so short, we had to make sure we cut enough to make it through the fiscal year,” she said.
That meant slicing the department by 27 percent – many of those came in the form of staff cuts.
Other changes were cultural. Brownlee said she wanted to create a culture in which employees could ask why things were done in certain ways and make suggestions that would create greater efficiencies.
“(Employees’ ideas) saved, we think, millions in processes,” she said.
For example, the department was creating documents, printing them, scanning them and then shredding them.
“It’s been neat to see the employees rise to the occasion,” she said.
Specifically, Gov. Brownback and cabinet members are working to alleviate unemployment in southeastern Kansas.