On a chilly November morning last week, Gov. Sam Brownback’s duties were easy: Shake hands, smile for photographs and admire the fresh Christmas tree just delivered by horse-drawn wagon to the governor’s mansion.
In between the snapshots and grins, he told someone where to find him when he officially joins President Donald Trump’s administration as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
“Be fun to see people from back home,” he said.
But Brownback himself still isn’t sure when he’ll be able to call that job his own. Since July, he’s been in political limbo. He’s still officially the head of state government in Kansas, even though he admits he’s passed on some of his most important responsibilities to his lieutenant.
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That’s led to an awkward period in state government in which two men can make a claim to be in charge: Brownback, a man ready to leave, and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, a man who says he’s ready to lead.
Brownback told reporters Tuesday that Colyer has taken over crucial parts of the job, confirming that the lieutenant governor is taking the lead in preparing the governor’s budget proposal ahead of the next legislative session.
“Yes, he is,” Brownback said. “He’s doing those and getting ready for the legislative session to get that put together.”
Colyer, who is seeking the Republican nomination in 2018, told The Star earlier this year that he didn’t know when he would take over, but guessed he would be elevated to the governor’s role sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving.
That hasn’t happened yet.
“I can understand why you have this awkward and strange situation like this,” said Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas. “Where you have someone who’s ready to go and someone who’s ready to come in, but you just don’t have that formal mechanism in place to really make it happen. So that’s a little unusual.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee narrowly voted to support Brownback’s confirmation last month, but a vote before the full Senate has not yet been scheduled and Democrats plan to delay a vote because of Brownback’s record on LGBT rights. There is no guarantee that a vote on Brownback’s nomination will take place before the Kansas Legislature convenes in January.
“It’s been interesting with Brownback that he’s not gotten that degree of deference that former senators usually do,” Miller said. “And Democrats have tried to make a point out of his nomination.”
Brownback said he’s now hoping for a vote before the Senate goes on Christmas break.
“I think we’ve got a good prospect of getting up for a vote, and if I can get up for a vote, a good prospect of passing,” he said.
Brownback was reluctant to talk about what he would do if he wasn’t confirmed. “We’re looking at what we need to do to get cleared through for the vote,” he said.
As he waits, Brownback has faced a string of controversies, including violence in state prisons, missing foster care children and accusations of a culture of secrecy from former administration officials. The Kansas tax experiment, which he championed, has also been a punching bag for Democrats as the Republican-controlled Congress weighs the prospect of tax cuts.
The state’s Legislature is prepping for what looks to be a difficult session in an election year where lawmakers will likely have to find hundreds of millions of dollars more for education funding to appease a state supreme court that has found the current school finance formula unconstitutional.
Sen. John Skubal, an Overland Park Republican on the Senate’s budget committee, said he was taken aback by Brownback’s shifting his responsibilities to Colyer. He called it strange and startling.
“I would think that if he was incapacitated and couldn’t do his job, that would be one thing,” Skubal said. “But if he doesn’t want to do it, you would think he would resign.”
Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, said she’s not as concerned about who’s developing the budget as to what’s in it.
But by the time the session starts in early January, the state needs to know clearly who is in charge, she said.
“If Gov. Brownback hasn’t been appointed to his new post, I think he needs to step down and let Colyer run the show,” she said. “We have too many extremely difficult issues to kind of have this shuttle back and forth between them.”
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said that taking a more prominent role in the administration will help Colyer with the Republican primary for governor less than a year away. However, she raised concerns about the fact that Brownback is essentially ceding his most important duties while remaining in office.
“Not only are we paying him, we’re giving him room and board. So personally I think he ought to continue to do the work of the governor,” said Kelly, the ranking Democrat on the Senate budget committee.
Kelly, a close friend of former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, said she did not recall Sebelius making similar moves in 2009 as she awaited confirmation as President Barack Obama’s secretary of Health and Human Services.
“My recollection was that Kathleen was governor until the very end. ... I could be seeing things through rose-colored glasses, but I don’t remember her handing the keys over to (Gov. Mark) Parkinson until she was actually confirmed,” Kelly said. “I don’t recall Parkinson ever acting in the public as governor before Kathleen was confirmed.”
Others are less concerned about the situation.
“I think it’s a positive thing that Sam is turning those responsibilities over to the lieutenant governor at this point,” said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican. “It’s a signal that they do expect the appointment to go through.”
David Kensinger, Brownback’s former chief of staff and 2010 campaign manager, compared the situation to when Colyer led the administration’s efforts to privatize Medicaid in 2012.
“A governor can delegate to a lieutenant governor any executive function,” Kensinger said. He said that shifting these new powers to Colyer will allow for a seamless transition.
Shawn Sullivan, the governor’s budget director, said that it’s not unusual for the lieutenant governor to be involved in the budget planning process. “Obviously, this year is different because we’re expecting that when the budget’s proposed that the lieutenant governor will be governor,” he said.
Brownback also delegated a key decision to his successor: The choice of the next leader of the Department for Children and Families. Colyer chose Gina Meier-Hummel, director of the Children’s Shelter in Lawrence, to head the frequently scrutinized state agency.
Colyer announced the pick at a news conference Wednesday, a major move for a man who has avoided details and specifics since it became public in July that Brownback would leave for the Trump administration. However, Colyer deflected questions about what the added responsibilities showed about his power in state government, saying Wednesday “we’re focusing on DCF today.”
Just a few months ago, Colyer adamantly told reporters that “there’s one governor at a time.”
“You just deal with what comes your way,” Colyer said Wednesday about Brownback’s delayed departure. “That’s what we’ll do.”
Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican who chairs the Senate budget committee, said she has had a number of discussions with Colyer in the past two months, but that until he officially becomes governor he is still fairly limited in what actions he can take. “I’ve given my perspective on what’s going on and what needs changing,” she said.
She said Colyer’s lead role in planning the budget makes sense because he’ll likely be the one overseeing the process.
“It’s pretty hard to get the keys handed to you and you have to give the State of the State and present the budget without having some input on it,” McGinn said.
Brownback was a frequent presence in the Capitol during the legislative session, even as he saw Republicans and Democrats alike continually criticize his budget proposal, tax policy and management of the state.
But even after the session that reflected a rebellion against his cherished policy ideals ended, Brownback was still emotional when he addressed reporters in July about his expected departure.
Since then, news conferences and publicized events with the governor have been few and far between. He can still be seen rushing to the church across the street from the Capitol some days, but the passionate Brownback who fought for re-election in 2014 has largely faded from view.
Colyer’s office, on the other hand, has publicized many events featuring the governor in waiting, at one point sending out a weekly schedule for Colyer with everything from a groundbreaking to a coin toss at a football game.
“It sounds like he’s checked out,” McGinn said of Brownback. “So for the rest of us it’s time to move Kansas forward.”