Kansas faces a host of pressing issues and challenges that Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer will inherit if Gov. Sam Brownback leaves office.
School funding, problems in the state’s prisons, the state’s Medicaid program and the state’s finances all would confront Colyer if he becomes governor.
President Donald Trump named Brownback an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom this week. The U.S. Senate must confirm Brownback to the position.
There is no timeline for when that would happen, but once it did, presumably, Brownback would resign and Colyer would become governor.
Here’s a look at some of the most immediate issues facing the state and the governor’s office.
1. School Funding
The Kansas Supreme Court is poised to rule at any time on whether school funding is adequate. The justices heard oral arguments earlier in July. No timeline has been given for the release of their opinion.
Lawmakers this spring approved a new funding formula and a two-year ramp-up in school spending. The formula gives schools overall about $195 million more in this budget year and about $290 million more in the year after that.
But a group of school districts who are part of a years-long lawsuit against the state over funding says the increase isn’t nearly enough. The group told the justices a two-year increase closer to $900 million is needed.
What it means for Colyer: He would face an early test if the Supreme Court rules that funding falls short and orders an immediate fix. He potentially would have to call a special legislative session this fall.
At that point, Colyer would have to decide how hands-on to be: whether to propose his own solution or allow the legislative process to play out and see what happens.
Significant additional funding for schools probably would require a tax increase, and a special session would leave open the possibility that the first bill Colyer would sign into law would be a tax increase. That could prove politically damaging if he decides to run for election next year.
Two of the state’s largest prisons, Lansing and El Dorado correctional facilities, have high levels of staff vacancies. El Dorado has had a particularly difficult time recruiting workers.
The staffing shortages came to a head in June during an hours-long episode of unrest at El Dorado when inmates refused to return to their cell house. Some lawmakers have questioned working and safety conditions at the prison.
The staffing shortages at El Dorado have prompted the use of 12-hour shifts for some corrections officers. A union representing the workers says some have been forced to work 16-hour shifts.
The attention on the corrections system comes ahead of a push to rebuild much of Lansing Correctional Facility. The state wants to move forward with contracts for construction this fall, with demolition as early as this winter.
Officials must allow lawmakers to review any deals. The problems within the prison system are likely to increase legislative scrutiny.
What it means for Colyer: He will have to decide how transparent to be about issues at the prison, whether to acknowledge problems or attempt to minimize challenges. He also will have to decide whether to ask for pay increases for prison workers or other measures.
Kansas is seeking federal reauthorization of its privatized Medicaid program, called KanCare.
The program, which provides health coverage to low-income adults, children, the elderly and people with disabilities, has been troubled at times, with federal officials in January denying a request for a one-year extension of the program. They cited insufficient oversight.
Kansas plans to submit its application for a long-term extension of the program in August. If federal officials don’t approve some type of continuation, KanCare’s authorization will expire at the end of the year.
What it means for Colyer: He spearheaded the creation of the program in 2013. If the program isn’t reauthorized, it would be politically difficult for him.
Because KanCare is his signature accomplishment, he will have to find a balance between defending the program and proposing solutions to problems. Some providers have complained of billing problems, and in the past, Medicaid applicants have experienced long wait times to have their paperwork processed.
4. The budget
Lawmakers passed tax increases over Brownback’s veto in June in an effort to close a budget gap. The package theoretically balances the state’s budget for at least the next two years.
But economic conditions may change, and the Legislature may need to spend more on schools if the Kansas Supreme Court rules current funding levels are inadequate. There is no guarantee that the state budget will remain stable.
What it means for Colyer: Budget problems largely dominated Brownback’s last few years in office. Colyer likely wants to move past that era, but he will have to balance requests for additional spending against a tight budget.
He may have to make difficult choices if additional school spending is needed and lawmakers are unwilling — or unable — to pass more tax increases to pay for it. In that event, significant reductions to other parts of the budget could be unavoidable.
5. The economy
Brownback for much of his second term has said Kansas is in the midst of a rural recession. He pointed to low agricultural commodity prices and low oil and gas prices.
From January 2015 to June 2017, private-sector employment in Kansas grew by 8,100 jobs, well short of Brownback’s 2014 re-election campaign goal of 25,000 jobs a year over four years.
What it means for Colyer: Brownback advocated for the 2012 tax cuts as a way to accelerate the state’s economy. With that policy now effectively eliminated, Colyer will have to decide whether to put forward his own proposals to stimulate economic growth.
Lawmakers are likely to look skeptically at any possible tax cuts, and some are also concerned about the overuse of incentives, such as tax credits.