Kansas' New Governor Faces Big Challenges -- and Reelection

by | February 1, 2018

By Jonathan Shorman And Hunter Woodall

After months of waiting, Kansas has a new governor.

Jeffrey William Colyer became the 47th governor on Wednesday after Sam Brownback resigned to take a diplomatic post in Washington, D.C.

Colyer hailed a new day in Kansas. He promised transparency and accountability and committed to protecting life but offered no details.

"We will set a tone and insist on an environment of openness, honesty and respect. And without harassment -- especially in this building," Colyer said in his inaugural address. "When others blame and complain, I'll be busy working for you, trying to find solutions."

Colyer, 57, took the oath shortly after 3 p.m. in the Kansas Capitol rotunda, surrounded by hundreds who gathered to watch. Spectators lined the railing on the second and third floors for a peak at the ceremonies.

Yet Colyer faces immense challenges after the pomp and circumstance fades.

He must mend strained relationships with lawmakers left by Brownback and work with them to create a constitutional school funding system. The new system will likely affect how much money every public school in the state receives.

And he must do that while campaigning to keep his job. Colyer will face a Republican primary in August, and several challengers say he's too much like Brownback.

If Colyer can't heal past tensions with lawmakers, the chances of gridlock and conflict increase as the Legislature heads toward an April 30 deadline to respond to a ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court that schools are inadequately funded.

This month, Brownback incurred the wrath of fellow Republicans by proposing a massive increase in school spending without laying out a clear plan to pay for it.

Colyer hasn't said how he wants to solve the problem -- whether he will back Brownback's earlier plan for a $600 million boost over five years -- or provide his own solution.

Wednesday, he promised a satisfactory resolution.

"I will not be responsible for shutting down the Kansas government or our schools. This is not Washington," Colyer said.

Speaking with reporters after the speech, he said the $600 million proposal was "one that I could handle, depending on where the budget is."

 

Healing relationships

Initial signs suggest Colyer may be thawing relationships with lawmakers.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said he was pleased by Colyer's comments about Kansas not being Washington, D.C.

"That was one of the problems with the former governor, Gov. Brownback," Hensley said. "He brought Washington-style politics to Kansas. And I'm hoping we can avoid that into the future."

Colyer focused much of his inaugural address on the importance of character. He invoked Kansas's "spirit of service" and said he will "treat every Kansan with the dignity and respect you deserve."

Colyer was joined at the ceremony by his wife, Ruth, and other members of his family. Brownback also attended.

"If ever there was a state whose people, ideals and principles were the heart and soul of America, it is the great state of Kansas," Colyer said. "And today is a new day in Kansas."

Since President Donald Trump nominated Brownback in July to become an ambassador until his confirmation last week, Colyer has stayed quiet about his own policy preferences, instead deferring to Brownback.

He made several high-level decisions and announcements even as Brownback remained governor, leading to questions over who was in charge.

Again and again he has promised a new tone while offering few specifics.

"He said he would change the tone...but in this speech, we don't know what that means, because of course, you can listen and still go the same path as Brownback," said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University.

Colyer is not expected to immediately name a lieutenant governor. For the moment, that means Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, is next in line for the office.

 

Lawmakers receptive

Wagle said after the ceremony that she expected Colyer to share policy goals when he speaks to the Legislature next week.

"It was a encouraging, historical address," Wagle said of his speech Wednesday. "That's what you do at an inaugural ceremony."

Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said he expects some time to pass as Colyer tries to formulate what he's going to do.

"I'm not sure coming out of the gate if we'll see a whole bunch of policy real quick, or whether we'll see something else," Hawkins said."The one thing that I want to see is, I want to see leadership. We all want to see leadership. And I think that we'll see that. We'll see a person who's a little bit more communicative.

Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-Kansas City, said she hopes Colyer will listen more to the Legislature than Brownback.

"Obviously, it would be better if the governor were more in tune with not only the Legislature, but the general public," Wolfe Moore said.

At the very least, Colyer needs to court Republican primary voters. A handful of candidates want to deny him the GOP nomination for governor, including two statewide officeholders: Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer.

Several candidates are intent on painting the Colyer administration as a continuation of Brownback's.

"Colyer has already taken credit for a budget that doesn't balance. It's more of the same -- withdrawals from the bank of KDOT, skipped KPERS payments, cuts to colleges, no rainy day fund, and an unconstitutional school finance plan," Wichita businessman Wink Hartman said on Facebook.

Colyer is the second Kansas lieutenant governor in recent years elevated to governor. Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson became governor after Gov. Kathleen Sebelius resigned in 2009 to take a position in President Barack Obama's cabinet.

(c)2018 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)