Next Kansas governor seeks to patch up legislator relations
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Incoming Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer begins his tenure needing to mend relations with fellow Republicans in the Legislature, whose clashes with his GOP predecessor intensified in recent months.
The ill will stands in sharp contrast to lawmakers’ generally positive mood last fall after President Donald Trump first nominated Gov. Sam Brownback for an ambassador’s post. Colyer, the lieutenant governor, promised to be more open, and lawmakers warmed to the prospects of working with him after years of financial distress under Brownback.
But earlier this month, Brownback proposed phasing in a big increase in spending on public schools and saying growth in state revenues would cover it. Many Republican legislators view the plan as financially reckless and an attempt to boost Colyer’s political standing by putting them in the politically untenable position of expressing skepticism about boosting education funding.
The incoming governor must quell an open revolt among GOP lawmakers who pointedly call it the “Brownback/Colyer” proposal. They assume Colyer had a big hand in drafting the plan and Brownback’s budget recommendations — something the departing governor publicly suggested publicly.
“This is tone change, and tone changes are meaningless,” said state Rep. J.R. Claeys, a conservative central Kansas Republican. “The disaster that has been foisted upon us is the same.”
Brownback is stepping down Wednesday to become U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Colyer will be elevated to governor at a 3 p.m. swearing-in ceremony.
Colyer, 57, owns a Kansas City-area plastic surgery practice that does both cosmetic procedures as well as reconstructive surgery, and even after being elected to public office, he continued to do international medical relief missions.
His friendship with Brownback began more than 20 years ago when both were White House fellows. Colyer was a state senator when Brownback put him on his ticket in 2010, and they won re-election in 2014.
Colyer was the Brownback administration’s spokesman on health care issues. He remained a steadfast ally both when Brownback successfully pursued aggressive income tax cuts in 2012 and 2013 and when legislators rolled most of them back last years after the state’s persistent budget problems caused voters to sour on the experiment.
The incoming governor is running for a full, four-year term this year and raised more than $630,000 from outside cash contributions since August, the highest total of any candidate. Some is supporters expect policy shifts that differentiate Colyer from the unpopular Brownback.
“He won’t have to constantly guard against stepping on anybody else’s toes, mainly Brownback’s toes,” said state Rep. Dan Hawkins, a conservative Wichita Republican. “He can go on ahead and do his thing.”
And Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, predicts “most people will probably give Colyer the benefit of the doubt.”
But the school funding proposal remains a huge sore point for many Republicans. It’s a response to a Kansas Supreme Court ruling in October that funding for public schools — even with a significant boost last year — remains inadequate under the state constitution. The court said a new school finance law must be in place by July.
Brownback is proposing to phase in an additional $513 million increase over five years and leave it to growth in tax revenues to cover the cost.
Democrats and moderate Republicans doubt the state can sustain the extra spending more than a year or two without them having to consider another tax increase or deep cuts in other parts of the budget.
Meanwhile, lawmakers on the GOP right view the plan as a betrayal of Brownback’s professed fiscal conservatism. They also believe it undercuts any effort to rewrite the state constitution to curb the Supreme Court’s power over school funding issues.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican, called the school funding plan “something that we couldn’t afford, that we can’t implement.”
“It all sounded good, but the burden was placed on us to balance the budget,” Wagle said. “We’ve seen the budget runs. We’re underwater.”
Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .