HAYS – Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer flew into the city of his youth Tuesday night to prepare for a life-changing transition to leader of state government in Kansas.
It’s the community where he learned about hard work, faith and developed an interest in politics. Less than 24 hours after he stepped into the mild January night, he’ll be governor.
“It’s great being home,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to work with Kansans. I’m really excited.”
Colyer, a Johnson County surgeon who has served as lieutenant governor for seven years to Gov. Sam Brownback, promised he would dedicate himself to being a fixer for what ails state government.
“First off,” he said, “you’ll see a change in tone. It really reflects how I view the world. I want Kansans to know they’ll have a trusted doctor who will listen to them.”
“We’re going to have a lot of challenges, you bet. We’re going to tackle them,” Colyer said.
Brownback and Colyer won a cake-walk 2010 statewide campaign in red-state Kansas and celebrated their ballot-box success by launching an unprecedentedly conservative agenda intended to bend the arc of state government policy to the right.
They relied on a road map that appealed to the GOP base and reminded moderates and liberals that Democratic Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson were no longer in charge.
Brownback’s signature and Colyer’s approval mark nearly 20 bills restricting abortion, a package of legislation to convince welfare recipients to pull themselves up by the boot straps, the aggressive push to privatize Medicaid, overhaul of the state’s approach to income taxes and injection of faith-based ideals into an array of state programs.
On Wednesday, Colyer will spend several hours in Hays visiting his high school alma mater and dining at a local restaurant. In the afternoon, Brownback will resign. The No. 2 for the past seven years – Colyer – will take the oath of office.
“Jeff’s going to do a great job,” Brownback said in an interview. “He is well-prepared.”
In the interview, Brownback said the duo took on a deep agenda when they arrived in 2011. There were bumps in the road, including a narrow re-election victory in 2014 that provided evidence the administration’s popularity had waned.
In addition to ongoing legal conflict over financing of K-12 public education, the Brownback-Colyer axis struggled to fulfill promises of the 2012 tax reform eliminating state income tax on 330,000 business owners and sharply lowering individual income tax rates. The 2017 Legislature, in a shocking reversal, repealed much of that supply-side experiment.
But the outgoing governor, and his replacement, believe they made cutting-edge advances in tax, welfare and prison reform that will be emulated at the federal and state levels.
“We opened up a new area of tax policy, I think, on small business,” Brownback said.
“I think you’re going to see them do welfare reform along the lines of what Kansas did. You’re going to see them do prison reform along the lines of what Kansas did.”
Brownback said the administration made progress on voluntary programs to extend the life of the Ogallala aquifer, expand private investment in wind development, integrate the Kansas Turnpike Authority into the Kansas Department of Transportation and gained approval for a new prison at Lansing,
Colyer, a 57-year-old surgeon from Johnson County, said he was proud of the privatized KanCare system for Medicaid. He was quick to point out the legislative changes in Kansas that contributed to a reduction in abortions.
“I think what we’ve done on the life issue is tremendous,” Colyer said. “Changing the culture of life has been wonderful.”
He said he won’t immediately name a lieutenant governor and would methodically make administrative changes in the executive branch.
With a crowded Republican field of candidates for governor, including Secretary of State Kris Kobach, there is a popular belief that Colyer must demonstrate he’s not a clone of Brownback. In Colyer’s view, the real objective is defining himself in ways understood by voters.
“It’s not an issue of separating yourself,” Colyer said. “It’s about – Who are you? That’s what Kansans want. They want to know: Who’s this guy? Who is this governor?”
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat who is the longest-serving legislator in state history, said he was skeptical of bold promises of change.
He said Brownback and Colyer were wearing rose-colored glasses. They’re eager to downplay years of conflict over financing of public education, year after year of budget problems, failure to expand Medicaid and failure to meet promises made about job growth.
“With Brownback gone,” Hensley said, “some say this is the beginning of a new era. The reality is, it’s a new governor with the same thinking.”